I was asked recently what I was really looking for in a relationship, and I answered, ‘Honesty. The truth.‘ My friend responded, “Well good luck with that.” Having struggled through my share of relationships where finding the truth mirrored a shadow boxing episode, I understood his cynicism. We wondered if perceived dishonesty could sometimes be more accurately attributed to one of not knowing the truth.
In the writing of memoir, or personal essay, truth is the foundation that supports the story. Think of how you felt when you learned much of his story was a lie after being mesmerized by James Frey’s, A Million Little Pieces, or your wondering about all the facts behind Three Cups of Tea author Greg Mortenson once a few details didn’t add up. Readers not only want to know, but deserve to know that when reading essay or memoir, the story is grounded in truth. Savvy readers can smell an author’s wobbliness in this arena, and if one tiny element doesn’t ring true, we will toss the baby with the bath water. Trust is critical. We will not believe unless we trust. Simple enough.
There is something funny about truth though, and despite it’s on-the-surface uncomplicated simplicity, truth may change over time. And what is even more fascinating is that there is always more than one truth. I’m not talking about changing location or time of day or people who were present, or any other facts when writing; I’m talking about the emotional truth and the incredible challenges writers can face when digging deep into their own personal experiences.
I can only write from my perception of a situation, and what I personally know to be the truth at that time. If you were with me, it is quite possible your view of the same experience would be completely different. Both are likely to be honest and real.
I wrote a book six years ago chronicling the first year of my separation and eventual divorce. I use the term ‘book’ loosely because this is a disjointed series of essays that all revolve around my emotional experience during that time. The book is 300 pages strong and would need an exhaustive round of rewriting to resuscitate it, but that is not what frightens me. The difficulty for me in that book, would be facing my truth at that moment in time and not substituting the wisdom I have acquired since then. I read some of those essays and cringe at my insecurities, my inability to see the writing on the wall, my determination to rush my way through a life-altering trauma. I want to rewrite it with what I know today.
That, of course, would be a lie. One of the most wonderful elements inside all of those essays is the raw emotional chaos, the naked truth, and the embarrassing reality. That IS what was. Our truth changes with hindsight, but we must be careful not to doctor up the past too much. Our readers will smell it a mile away, and we will have missed the mark as writers.
I am writing stories for my book now that I am determined to get down as honestly as I can. I have worked my way through two boxes of tissues and countless bottles of pinot noir so far, and some evenings I have worked myself into such a frenzy that I must soak in a bubble bath before I can relax enough to sleep. This truth telling is hard work.
But when we push our way through the dirt, look underneath the rocks, peel away the layers of the onion, and force ourselves to stare at our reflection with an unwavering gaze, the potential rewards are enormous. When we hit it, we are free in a way we have never been before, the smokey haze clears, we can inhale deeply, and while we might be devastated in some respects by what has been uncovered, we are also finally able to let go.
We writers are not foolish and know it is unlikely our craft will ever make us rich, but we do believe we just might discover another type of hard-won wealth. We know that when we do this well, you will find something in the telling of our story that will teach and touch you.
There is a great personal cost involved when we writers force our words to paper and share this truth. We do it because we are driven. We willingly pay the price. We may cry and drink our way through page after page, but when we come out on the other side; we are free. We are finally free.
“How did I ever think I’d get to freedom, without my arms swung open wide?” – Pam Houston