Would We Lie To You?: The Whole Freakin' Truth
[Another entry in the ongoing blog "Would We Lie To You?: News from the Non-Fiction Career Lab"]
by Sari Boren
When writing memoir I write what I know to be true; however, I feel compelled to write not just the truth but, your honor, the whole truth and nothing but every digressive, nuanced aspect of the truth.
Writing memoir feels like sitting before a giant block of marble (i.e. My Entire Life) and chipping away to reveal the shape of the embedded story. My problem is that I get started on an adorable cherubic figure, and the cherub is holding an arrow so I reveal the arrow. Then I see the arrow is aimed at a defenseless little fawn, so I chip away at the fawn, and the fawn is nuzzling a bunny -- hello bunny! -- and the bunny is hopping dangerously close to a lawn mower, and then . . . because all these elements have something to do with my little cherubic essay I reveal them all. And trust the reader to follow every disparate thematic thread. Poor, poor reader.
I subjected nine such readers, my fellow Non-Fiction Career Lab students, to this thematic zoo when they recently critiqued an essay of mine. Listening to their comments, I realized no one understood what I had intended my essay to be about. I had crushed my poor little 1,700 word essay under the weight of so many themes that the essay was about too many things, and not any one thing in particular.
In her book The Situation and the Story, Vivian Gornick writes about distinguishing the Situation from the Story in narrative nonfiction: The Situation is what happened; the Story is what the writer chooses to make of that Situation. Easy enough to understand, in theory, but when writing about a Situation I feel is worth telling, I see many Stories (or themes).
Here's the Situation I was writing about in my essay: Three years after my father died he was inducted into the Baking Hall of Fame, and I was asked to write the exhibit text that would be on his Hall of Fame plaque.
The themes I crammed into that 1,700 word essay ranged from my panic at writing exhibit text about my dad because writing exhibit text is my vocation, to personal history versus private history, to realizing that my dad and I didn't understand each other's jobs, and on and on, including a teeny bit about how my dad's experiences as a Holocaust survivor affected his business practices.
(Yes, the Holocaust, was going to be a minor aside in this 1,700 word essay. Since both my parents are Holocaust survivors, a problem I have when writing about my family is something I call The Holocaust Bomb: just mentioning the Holocaust drags focus away from every other theme. You may have a Bomb in your writing life, a defining personal characteristic or experience that disproportionally overshadows all other attributes but, if left unmentioned, feels like a lie of omission. For example, the Recovering Addict Bomb; the Yes, I'm Gay Bomb; the . . . oh, for the love of God, this is an entirely separate blog post. Sorry.)
Clearly, I had to cut the number of themes in my essay. Here's how I tackled the problem. Perhaps this inadvertent process can work for you.
First, since I was having trouble distinguishing one theme from another, I wrote out and numbered each theme. I call this process Turning Over the Rock and Naming the What I Find Underneath. Turning over the rock exposed eight (8) themes. Alarming, but helpful.
Next, I cut the two themes I felt deserved their own essays.
Then I found help in an unexpected place: the description of Michael Lowenthal's Grub Street class "Get Me Out of Here! The Craft of Effective Story Endings," which he hasn't even taught yet. From the description, I understood that an ending needs to answer the questions raised in the story. I'd been struggling with my essay's ending. When I took another look, I saw the problem wasn't the ending, but that the essay was asking too many questions. I picked the question most interesting for me, right now, and wrote out the question. (OK, fine -- I wrote two questions. This is a process, folks.) I kept the themes that answered my questions. The themes that didn't, I cut.
Finally, since I had named my themes, I could see where the dead themes lingered in my essay. Over several revisions I found sentences and phrases that I loved, but which harkened back to the dead themes. I deleted the dead theme stragglers.
I think the essay now tells a clear (and delightful) story. Yet, I still worry that stripping away the other themes over-simplifies the essay. Life situations are not confined to a single thematic thread. If I focus on one theme and leave out the others, am I telling the whole truth about what happened? Maybe If I could write a . . . oh, for Pete's sake. Never mind.
Sari Boren is a partner, exhibit developer and writer at the exhibit design firm Wondercabinet Interpretive Design, Inc. Her nonfiction work has appeared in War, Literature and the Arts and The Unesco Courier.