As soon as you decide to write about your own life, you must make an agreement with yourself about the meaning of the word “true.” After all, the goal in writing anything memoir-ish is to tell “the truth.” The truth of what happened will be your narrative ballast. When I’m searching for a way forward in my story, I often remind myself, “Just tell the truth.” I just finished a chapter about my seventh grade school year. I have always thought I could write a novel about that year alone, as the experience of moving from the internal world of childhood to the social, external world of adolescence was a particularly traumatic and exhilarating for me.
In my recent book, I spent exactly 12 pages on that year, and four of those pages dealt with a single event: the morning in homeroom when a girl I was interested in read aloud to a group of us from the jacket text of Tom Robbins’ Even Cowgirls Get the Blues. By the time I got to the end of the chapter, my truth-telling brain was filled with all the things I didn’t write about, specifically my first date and first kiss, which seemed odd since the book is about my relationship to romantic love.
And yet that first kiss did not belong in the story, at least not that part of the story. When I wrote only fiction, I used to claim I couldn’t write about my own life because I knew too much, and I could never sift through all that happened to tell a decent story. This was before I understood that The Truth has very little to do with what happened. Instead, exactly like a fiction writer, as a memoirist you use what happened to reveal The Truth.
It is such a relief to remember this. The Truth, after all, runs through every event in my life, and yet it cannot be separated as those events can and are separated. Instead, The Truth exists in its entirety within every millisecond. If I were capable, I might tell a story that lasts only that long, but I need the stretch of years to reveal what I sometimes sense in a heartbeat. And thus my agreement with myself about The Truth, that I will tell a lie called a story so I might know it.
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