Back in February one of my stories was featured on podcast HowSound: The Backstory to (in this case, a decent try for your first time out) Radio Storytelling. A couple of days ago Rob forwarded me a comment that had been posted on the story page and suggested that I might want to respond privately rather than publicly on the blog. I’ve been thinking over the last couple of days exactly how to respond or whether to respond at all.
The comment was mostly complimentary and even included a smiley face. But it also questioned whether I was being completely honest in the story. If it was anything else I probably would have been grateful for the compliment and ignored the rest it, but honesty is something that I think about a lot, particularly in the context of writing and producing first-person narrative stories.
Thanks to Mike Daisey there have been no shortage of articles over the last few months about what honesty means in the context of a personal narrative and whether that’s different from what honesty means in the context of journalism.
I think part of the problem for first-person narratives/memoir/creative non-fiction/whatever we’re calling these things this week is that there is no consistant definition for what constitutes “being honest.” It reminds me a little of Justice Potter Stewart’s famous “I know it when I see it” description of pornography. The problem is one person’s porn is another’s Aphrodite of Cnidus. Can something contain David-Sederisian exaggeration and still be honest? What about changing people’s names, is that ok? Composite characters? Re-arranging timelines? How do you recreate dialogue from years ago that only exists in the memories of those who were there? How accurate must that dialogue be?
Memory can be unreliable. There is a story I heard many times growing up. It has to do with my older brother getting hit by a car when I was just a couple months old. I was in a writing class during my final year of college and we were free-writing about our earliest memory. I started writing about that and then realized it would be impossible for me to have an actual memory of that event. But there it was in my head, clear as day. I had built a memory by hearing the story told over and over again until my mind convinced me that I remembered it. But the details, I realized, were all wrong. There’s no way I could have been standing at the window. In my memory it took place at the wrong house, in the wrong driveway, in the wrong city.
These are not new problems. Thucydides, the second of the two great Ancient Greek historians wrote about some of them 2,400 years ago in the introduction to his history of the Peloponnesian War:
With reference to the speeches in this history, some were delivered before the war began, others while it was going on; some I heard myself, others I got from various quarters; it was in all cases difficult to carry them word for word in one’s memory, so my habit has been to make the speakers say what was in my opinion demanded of them by the various occasions, of course adhering as closely as possible to the general sense of what they really said.
Should we regard Thucydides work as honest? Obviously these methods would be suspect if Thucydides were publishing his history today, but this same problem confronts anyone telling a personal story about the past where anyone says anything. Most of the time, for unrecorded events, getting as close to the general sense of what someone really said is as good as I can do. And, to me, it seems honest. Obviously making people up or making someone say something that would be unrecognizable to the speaker is a problem.
My story doesn’t contain any dialogue as far as I can remember, so that wasn’t an issue. But, this story posed some challenges which forced me to think about honesty through the entire process.
First, I had to be careful not to say anything that I didn’t actually believe. I didn’t want to go further than I honestly felt because I didn’t want to feel boxed into opinions that I didn’t actually hold after I made the story public.
Second, during the two weeks of writing, editing, and producing the story I was very aware of everything I did. Some of the scenes in this story were taking place in the present tense as I was writing it. This made me scrutinize every decision I made that could have had an affect on the action of the story. Numerous times during those two weeks I had to question whether I was doing or not doing a certain thing because that’s what I would actually do under normal non-story-production circumstances or if I was doing something in order to have an affect on the story. And if I decided that I would do thing x under normal circumstances there was always the question of whether to record it or not. Sometimes I did record and that felt honest. Other times I didn’t, because it felt too much like I was creating an artificial scene for the sake of my story.
During one of the early edits, Rob asked me whether I was planning to call my parents and if so whether I was planning to record or not record the conversation. I thought about it and decided that under normal circumstances there was very little chance that I would have called up my parents and had the conversation. I thought that doing it for the sake of heightened drama in the story would have been dishonest. So I didn’t do it. As a result the high point of the story became this frozen moment where I had come to terms with where I was personally but faced the uncertainty of what would happen when they found out.
So, the story ends with that uncertainty.
Once I figured out that that was my ending I had another challenge. At that point, the letter had been written and was sitting my my bag, I had finished writing the story, I had done the voicing for the piece and I had a few days left to produce it. During that production time I didn’t want real-life circumstances to move past the ending of the story. So I held onto the letter a couple more days. This was the one part of the entire process that felt unnatural, but I think I’m ok with it.
I finished producing the story the morning of November 18th. I had decided that I wanted to let my parents know about the story before it went out into the world. I had a window of a few hours before the start of the public listening event. In that window between finishing the story and sharing it publicly, I emailed them a copy of the letter.
We’ve had some good conversations since then.
Finally, let me address the actual point of skepticism by saying the Mormons are not a monolithic group. While the smiling, nuclear family has largely become of the image of the Mormon church, divorce rates among Mormons are basically the same as the rest of the country. There are plenty of practicing Mormons who are divorced and I guess I reject the notion that a Mormon divorcing equals leaving the church or that it would even naturally send off those alarm bells. For me divorce and losing faith were not causally linked.