Yesterday I responded on Facebook to a blog posting about John D’Agata, author of About a Mountain. The posting was very astute – it was, after all, written by one of the preeminent teachers and writers of creative nonfiction essay. I, however, stated my ambivalence and said I understood D’Agata’s point that facts in creative non-fiction don’t always have to be absolutely accurate. It’s not journalism and it’s not biography. And in terms of writing a disclaimer of such in the form of a preface in order to alert the reader, well, I thought that was akin to a TV program alert that states, “Don’t do this at home,” as if the audience is too dumb to figure that out. If you are reading memoir, then you might suppose that some things are not 100% accurate, or as my mother-in-law says, “Why you gotta tell every little fart (pronounced “faht”)?”
With D’Agata’s book, I remember feeling like I was in on the secret as I read it – his writing sounded reportorial yet I sensed his play and exaggeration of certain things as the book went on. Besides, as I flippantly pointed out, his omission of the preface allowed him to publish two books rather than just one.
My post was removed minutes later. It’s removal put me in a stew.
One of the other posters asked me (after my post was removed) if I wouldn’t be upset if the date of a loved one’s passing was changed to make the story better. I said no, but, maybe upon thinking about it, I would be upset if the date was wrong in the loved one’s obituary, which, by the way, would be written at the time of the passing and not as a memory.
Thinking about it more, I realize that I always remember the date of Ronald’s and my first meeting as January 20, 1976. Thirty-two years later (I had that as thirty years originally, but I didn’t want you to think I was lying – it was December 2007) as we were packing to move south, I pulled out all my old journals (and shredded them! My God, I was histrionic!), and happened to come across the date that we actually met. To tell you the truth, I still don’t remember it, and for always in my mind, it will be January 20, 1976. Am I lying? And does it matter what the exact date was? I don’t actually say the date in my memoir, and many other dates are just referred to as spring of 1978 or winter of whatever. I’m terrible at dates. Ask any of my friends and they will tell you I’ve called them and said, “I know you have a birthday sometime around now. Did I miss it?” I changed majors in undergraduate school from journalism to drama (and then finally to English education) just because the facts didn’t particularly interest me. I was more into the human aspect of the story, and I still am.
When the human aspect is considered, facts get blurry. Just sit at the table of any family reunion and listen to variations of the same family story. “No, it wasn’t Uncle Tony, it was Uncle Joe,” or “No, they didn’t go fishing, they went hunting.” Or what about the stories that never really happened, but they’ve been told so many times they have become family lore? Are they lying? No, because memories become truth and our memories are faulty and changeable. They are dependent on so many things, as elucidated in my last post, and I didn’t even list all the variables that impact how an event is remembered.
Isn’t that what readers are seeking when they read memoir? Don’t they want to learn of that particular author’s perspective on events in his/her life? And do the particularities – the truths or facts – really matter, if the story is placed in context and in time and the author elicits feeling? Did you really believe everything you read in Mary Karr’s The Liar’s Club? Didn’t the title hint at least a little that she was a member of the club she wrote about? It didn’t make me like the book less.
Facts will always matter to some people, of course, but not to all. I’ve learned I can’t please everyone, but I can work at pleasing myself through my most honest and heartfelt literary representation of my story.
Maybe all that thinking isn’t what got my post deleted. Perhaps it was my audacity at posting my blog’s URL. I didn’t realize that it would post a giant photo of me and look like an ad. I’m not technically proficient in social media, and I swear I’ve posted the URL before and it was just an address. I posted it because I had touched on D’Agata in my own post that week. It was relevant to the discussion, even if not as astute as the preeminent writer/teacher’s post.
An agent, the one I stopped contact with because she wanted me to rewrite my memoir as some sort of exposé, told me that I had to build a social media presence. Was I wrong to post my URL? Did I overstep some invisible barrier? Did it have to do with the social media hierarchy of who’s who? Classism? Elitism? Yes, the preeminent writer/teacher has credentials, many credentials. He is well respected and sought after. Do I not know my place?
I have a few credentials, too, but I don’t refer to them much because why do they really matter? They were degrees and milestones I wanted to accomplish. Do they make me smarter? Am I a better person for having completed them? Two of the smartest people I ever knew were my parents, and neither one graduated high school.
My first and greatest credential is that I am a fellow human being. One thing I learned over the years is that I don’t assume anything about anyone, which is why I’m trying really hard not to assume I know why preeminent writer/teacher deleted my post.
When I sold jewelry on commission in retail, I was one of the few associates who did not size up potential customers. I treated people with exactly the same attention whether they planned to spend $1.99 or $1,999.00. Oftentimes the very people that other associates snubbed ended up spending the most money. It was the human interaction and the chance to be of service to another that motivated and excited me. It didn’t make me the best sales associate by a long shot, if commissions were the only measure, but it made my customers feel valued and me feel good. All humans deserve to be treated with respect and dignity, even when they sometimes make it difficult to do so. Social media was supposed to be the great equalizer, but it is not.
There’s the rub. When we talk about truth and facts in the social media world, how many people present their lives truthfully? They are already editing and altering their life stories by what they post and what they don’t. Some create whole personas and life stories, often for bad intent. We live in an untruthful world because we are human and flawed. We can’t help ourselves. We can’t help that we view the world through a particular lens or that our memories are fluid or that we are inherently selfish and egocentric. Every major historical event comes down to someone’s ego being offended, and don’t even start me on how biased history is. Or how blatantly politicians lie to gain supporters. Talk about untruths!
How I feel about people is my greatest ambivalence. I have a strong motivation to serve. Yet people disappoint, and I know I disappoint them. All we can do is listen to another’s stories with respect, an open heart, and an open mind, just as they are told to us, whether orally, written, or through action, art, music and dance. The way they are told and what is told are as important as the stories themselves, lies and omissions not excepted. They define who we are and give us common ground. They are the great equalizer.