Winter 1999, Volume 16.2
The Province of Personal Narrative
John Daniel has been a Wallace Stegner Fellow in Poetry at Stanford University and a research and writing fellow at Oregon State University’s Center for the Humanities. Two of his books, The Trail Home (Pantheon, 1992) and Looking After (Counterpoint, 1996), have won the Oregon Book Award for Literary Nonfiction from Literary Arts, Inc. John Daniel lives with his wife, Marilyn, in the Coast Range foothills west of Eugene, Oregon.
There’s a story my mother used to tell about me, even occasionally in her last years, when her memory was sliding away from her in a long slow avalanche. Once in the 1950s, when we were living in the semi-rural outskirts of Washington, D.C., our cat brought a maimed bird to the door. My mother scolded the cat and grieved for the bird, the story went, until I came to the door behind her, 6 or 7 years old, and pronounced, "Mother, it’s a cat’s nature to hunt birds."
My mother would tell the story and ask, "Do you remember that?"
"I remember," I’d tell her. Memory was a thing of moments for my mother near the end of her life. It was good to be able to share them.
In truth, however, I told her a lie. I didn’t then and don’t now remember saying those words. I don’t remember what kind of bird it was, or what the cat looked like, or the doorstep. I have only the vaguest image of the entryway, a shadowy recollection of my mother’s appearance at that time in our lives. I assured her that I remembered the experience; in truth, I remembered her telling the story about me over the years. I remembered being remembered. The original event is almost entirely gone from me. The story has replaced the event. The story has become the truth, insofar as anyone in the world knows the truth.
Earlier in her life, I think my mother used to tell the story in greater detail. There was more about the poor bird, more about my manner and admonishing tone. Did she tell it exactly as it happened? I doubt it. Surely she elaborated, at least slightly. Surely she shaped up my pronouncement, editing for effect, when recounting the incident to family and friends. It was a good little story, and few can resist the impulse to make a good story better.
Actually, none of us can resist, because memory itself alters and elaborates. There’s an image I’ve had drifting around the threshold of awareness my entire conscious life, a memory that became very important to me in my mid-forties when I set out to write a memoir about my mother and my own childhood and early adulthood (Looking After: A Son’s Memoir, published in 1996 by Counterpoint). The remembered event may have occurred when I was two years old. The sense of it is vague, but I believe it occurred in my mother’s arms. I seem to remember the warmth and gentle pressure of arms and breast. And I seem to recall a voice speaking to me, drawing me out into the world. The words are indistinct, but I hear the murmuring of the voice like a stream moving over stones, the words all dissolved in the lilt and whisper of their flow. Maybe it was her heart and blood I was hearing, maybe it wasn’t language at all.
But it’s the stars I remember best, or think I remember. It’s the stars that I think of as my first seeing. Maybe my mother was talking about them, crooning about them. I saw a scatter of light above me, and it was in seeing that scatter of light that I first distinguished a world separate from me and a me separate from the world. I think of it as my second birth, as profound as my first—more profound, in a way, because it was the birth of consciousness, of the point of view I would come to know as myself, more me than arms or legs.
There are other details of that moment that I want to say I remember: that the night air was warm and soft on my face, that the stars looked cold somehow, that crickets were sounding, that a dog barked. But how could I at two years old have been aware of anything I could identify and remember as the sound of crickets? A barking dog maybe, since we had a dog, but crickets? And what did I know of the sensation of cold that I could extend it to the stars? Surely my imagination has invented those details, remembering them into the recollection of voice and scattered light in order to render the scene more complete. I’m a writer, after all, and I have a writer’s instinct for artifice. I want to make the scene immediate for the reader, and that artifice of reaching into language is only an extension of a deeper, pre-verbal artifice. Something in my psyche wants to make the scene immediate for me, the me who distantly remembers it. Memory itself is a fabricator, a spinner of yarns, a poet and a liar.
As I exercised memory in writing my book I became very interested in how it functions, and I did some research. Scientists for decades have been trying to discover the sites in the brain where memories are stored. Now they seem to have found the answer. There are structures and regions of the brain that are critical in various ways to the functioning of memory, but there seem to be no storage sites per se. When we remember an experience, the brain does not retrieve a record of it as a computer retrieves information stored in its memory banks. There is no record. The brain somehow recreates the experience, conjuring the image out of vast, labyrinthine loopings of neurons firing in a pattern similar to the one evoked by the original experience.
But the recreation is not a photocopy. According to neurobiologist Gerald Edelman, there are ten billion neurons in the human cerebral cortex, and more potential connections between those neurons than there are subatomic particles in the entire estimated physical universe. It is a system of near-infinite complexity, a system that seems designed for revision as much as for replication, and revision unquestionably occurs. Details from separate experiences weave together, so that the rememberer thinks of them as having happened together. The actual year or season or time of day shifts to a different one. Many details are lost, usually in ways that serve the self in its present situation, not the self of ten or twenty or forty years ago when the remembered event took place. And even the fresh memory, the "original," is not reliable in a documentary sense. It happens all the time that two trustworthy eyewitnesses to a recent incident give widely divergent accounts. We remember not the story of what happened but always a story, a version, an account that fits our present understanding of the world and helps us get on with our lives. That story is subject to unconscious revision over time. The latest draft becomes for us the story, the clear and certain memory we would swear to.
Memory, in short, is not a record of the past but an evolving myth of understanding the psyche spins from its engagement with the world. I mean "myth" in two opposed senses—a story so true you live your life by it, and an untruth taken as fact. Subjects in psychological tests can easily be induced to remember things that didn’t happen. When a subject is asked, after watching a film of an accident, "How fast do you think the cars were going when they smashed into each other?," he is likely to remember having seen broken glass in the film. If asked a question less suggestive of high-speed impact, he is unlikely to remember broken glass. There is none in the film. In another experiment, kids and adults too can be prompted to remember having once been lost in a mall and very frightened about it. Memory is capable not only of revision but also of outright invention.
Major events as well as trivial ones can be invented. Someone who recalls being sexually abused as a child may remember and recount the violation in vivid detail. The violation may or may not have occurred. Without a confession or a witness, there is often no way to determine the truth. Hypnotizing the accuser not only doesn’t help, it increases the likelihood of false memory. Hypnotized subjects remember with greater confidence and in greater detail, but there are more errors in what they remember. The hypnotized mind is an even better fabricator than the mind in its ordinary state, and the hypnotized subject is extremely suggestible to intended or unintended cues from the questioner. It’s for this reason that hypnotically "refreshed" testimony, common in the 1970s, is now disallowed in many courtrooms.
All of which makes me glad I’m not a participant in one of those painful wars of memory, but only a writer. Yet the stakes are high for a writer, too, especially for a writer of personal narrative. My memories live at the center of my being. My memories are me, and if I can’t know them to be true, how can I know who I am? How, I had to ask myself, could I write a memoir if I couldn’t trust memory?
Two realizations helped me proceed. First, I saw that I owed it to my readers to incorporate my understandings and beliefs about memory into the book as a kind of truth-in-advertising disclosure. This I did as an intermittent commentary woven throughout. Second, and more crucially, the experience of writing sustained personal narrative for the first time led me to value the truth of memory as story a little higher than the truth of memory as history.
The Swiss psychologist Jean Piaget once told an interviewer about one of his first conscious experiences. He remembered being pushed in a perambulator by his nanny when she was attacked by a man who wanted her purse. Throughout his youth Piaget recalled the attacker’s bearded face, the nanny screaming and scratching his arm, the flash of sun on her parasol as she beat him with it, and other tightly-focused details. Later in life, as a young adult, he discovered that the incident he remembered so vividly had never happened. The nanny had been unaccountably late getting the little boy home and had concocted the tale of the attacker to satisfy his parents. Evidently she was a good storyteller, and little Piaget soaked it up. Retellings by his parents no doubt further strengthened the details in his memory. His nanny’s false alibi became absolute truth to him.
If the nanny and parents had filed a complaint about the "incident," and if a bearded man had been charged with the attack, Piaget’s memory might have abetted his nanny’s confabulation in perpetrating an injustice. But the needs of art are not the same as the needs of law. If Piaget had never discovered the falsehood of his memory, and if in his forties he had undertaken a memoir of his childhood, that "experience" might have proven very valuable. It might have constellated with other memories in ways that helped him understand his fears, his sense of gender roles and relations, his attitudes toward violence. False in a historical sense, the story might have contributed to the truth of a larger story by which to understand his life.
That’s the way it may have worked with my own less dramatic memory. I may never have seen the stars from my mother’s arms. I may have been in the arms of the woman who helped with housekeeping when my brother and I were small. I may have seen not stars but fireflies, which I also remember from an early age. Or the image may have come from a story, a song, from who knows what or where. But what I have, regardless of its origin or veracity, is the image. I looked up from my mother’s arms and saw the stars in the black night sky. I’ve carried that glimpse for most of fifty years, and there are others. The stars were on my mind as a young boy.
When I was five or so, my mother was trying to explain the West Coast to me, a place called Oregon. I got it that the land went on from where we lived and ended far away in Oregon, but for some reason I didn’t see an ocean. I saw mountains, a last solid shore, and then the void of starry space. There was also a recurrent dream I had at that age and older, a nightmare that made me cry out until my mother came to turn on the light and comfort me. There was no story, just an image. I felt myself floating among icy stars, a dead and disembodied soul lost forever from my life.
I still have an acute fear of death, and I’ve sometimes thought that the glittering sky I saw from my mother’s arms somehow branded that fear into me, but it makes no sense. Why would that moment have been fearful? What was death to the I who had just been born beneath those stars? My fear must have come later, from a source still withheld by memory, something that turned the stars into cold emblems of extinction.
Memory responds to attention—awakened images wake others. One of the houses we lived in back then was a few blocks from the firehouse in Glen Echo, Maryland. The siren was loud, an implacable shriek, and when it went up and leveled off at its highest pitch I would stop everything and wait for it to go back down, because that would mean only a fire. If it didn’t go down it meant something else. It meant that Russian missiles were on the way and nothing could stop them, that in a few minutes, along with Congress and the President and my family and friends, I would burn instantly to nothing in a blinding flash. I’d be standing there in my room, then gone. When the siren stayed too many seconds at its top screaming pitch I closed my eyes and willed it to go down, then pleaded, hitting my fists against my thighs.
Light, dark. Here, gone. Is that what gave me the nightmare? Is that what made me see an ultimate brink at the end of America? I don’t know, and I don’t know if I can know. But I am sure of one thing: the starry dark is a deep and primary image for me, a riddle of my being. And so it makes sense that memory should work and worry it, tease it into further images, shape scenes and stories from it, and it makes sense that I should help memory along. The starry dark is integral to the myth of identity that memory weaves within me, and even though memory is a known liar, I don’t believe it’s out to trick me or lead me astray. It’s my faith that the myth of memory tends toward the truths that I most need to know.
And so I wrote a memoir. I tried to remember the boy and young man I had been. I tried to understand how we got split up and how we might get back together. I tried to remember as completely as I could my mother and what she meant to me, in life and in death. I started with what I recalled and wrote my way into what I didn’t recall. I wrote about real people, real events, but I put into mouths—my wife’s, my mother’s, my own—some words that almost certainly never were said. I added to remembered events people and things that may not have been part of them. I added crickets and barking dogs.
All this, yet I insist I’ve told the truth in my book. Truth means conformity to fact, but it also means fidelity, or faithfulness. As a writer of personal narrative I owe fidelity to facts. I gather all I can find, rubbing each for its full gleam and color. Each is an element of the story I need to tell. But I also owe fidelity to that story in its potential wholeness, the wholeness of which clearly remembered events form only a part. I owe fidelity to what memory can’t provide, and how can I possible exercise that faith except by following, in the spirit of truth, the stuttering, devious pencil I hold in my hand?
That doesn’t mean, of course, that what the pencil writes isn’t subject to revision. When the scent is fresh it’s important to follow uncritically, with enthusiasm, but it’s just as important, when the trail has cooled, to examine it dispassionately and note carefully those regions it has visited and those it has not. The nature writer John Burroughs once wrote about his work, "It was not till I got home that I really went to Maine, or the Adirondacks, or to Canada. Out of the chaotic and nebulous impressions which these expeditions gave me, I evolved the real experience." Evolved it, that is, by writing it. It’s the writer’s plight and his power that the real experience of the birch forest in Maine occurs not as he is walking through it, but back home in his study as he writes it. There, Burroughs says, he "compels that vague unconscious being within me, who absorbs so much and says so little, to unbosom himself at the point of a pen."
If he means that last phrase as a joke, it’s a serious joke. The process does involve compulsion, and the compulsion must be thorough. As I wrote my book there were parts of the story I wanted to leave to my vague unconscious being because they didn’t show me as I like to be seen. I was far from a perfect care giver for my mother in her last years. I hurried her when she couldn’t hurry, I was impatient with her memory lapses, I cut off conversations, I spent too much of our time together in an irritable funk. There were moments when I wished she would just go ahead and die. The point of the pen must demand an account of those moments too. It must require the fullest truth memory can provide—memory the self-serving, memory the liar. If the memoirist’s task is to bring into being a myth of identity, he must also carry out an honest interrogation of that myth.
He must recognize, too, that there are certain absences of memory the pen must not fill. In my book I recall a scene from my eighth or ninth year when my mother said something very hurtful to me. I remember in clear detail the look on her face, her posture and clothing, the objects in my bedroom where we stood, and I remember—can still feel—the crumpling pain her words gave me, how it contracted my whole being. But I absolutely do not remember what she said, and in this instance, because the experience was and remains so charged, I did not feel I could put words in her mouth. If I had remembered the gist of her remark I would have imagined language for that gist, but the memory blockage was too complete. The spirit of truth had too little to work with.
The question of how much and what kind of fabrication is permissible depends considerably on the kind of writing one is doing. Some years ago I wrote an essay about the clearcutting of old-growth forest, drawing on my experience as a back packer, an environmentalist, and a logger. The first nine sections make clear that on ecological and aesthetic grounds I’m against clearcutting as it’s been practiced in the Northwest, that I’m for a less profligate and more imaginative use of the forest. This is how the tenth and final section begins:
"No, it ain’t pretty," a man said to me once, "but it’s the only way to harvest those trees. It don’t pay to go in there just for a few."
We were standing in the rainy morning outside the Weyerhaeuser time shack. His tin hat battered by years in the woods, a lunch pail and steel thermos of coffee in his hands, he spoke those words with a certainty I remember clearly—just as I remember what a good man he was, how he cussed beautifully and told fine stories and was friendly to a green choker-setter, how he worked with an impossible appetite that left me panting and cussing unbeautifully behind him. I don’t remember what I or someone said that drew his response, or whether he was answering some doubt he himself had raised. I only recall the authority of his voice, the rain dripping from his tin hat, and the idling crummies waiting to carry us out the muddy roads from camp, out through the stripped hills to another day of work.
The voice that spoke those words is my voice too. It’s in all of us—the voice of practicality and common sense, the voice that understands that ugly things are necessary. It’s a voice that values working hard to produce goods that all of us use. It has behind it certain assumptions, certain ideas about progress, economy, and standard of living, and it has behind it the evidence of certain numbers, of payrolls and balance sheets, of rotation cycles and board footage. It is not an ignorant or heartless voice. It has love for wife and children in it, a concern for their future. It has love for the work itself and the way of life that surrounds the work. And it has at least a tinge of regret for the forest, a sense of beauty and a sorrow at the violation of beauty.
I must have nodded, those years ago, when a good man spoke those words. I didn’t argue—against his experience and certainty, I had only a vague uneasiness. Now, I suppose, I would argue, but I know that arguing wouldn’t change his mind. As he defined the issue, he saw it truly. Many of us define the issue differently now, and we think we see it truly, and all of us on every side have studies and numbers and ideas to support what we believe. All of us have evidence.
The essay goes on to argue in two further paragraphs that the condition of the land itself is the most objective and reliable evidence, and that the condition of the land tilts strongly against clearcutting.
The man I briefly picture in this passage is fictitious. I invented him and the words he utters because I wanted to suggest to my urban environmentalist audience that economy must be considered alongside ecology in the timber debate; that nothing is helped by blaming or condescending to those who work, or worked, in the woods for a living; that we who use the materials they produce are trapped with them in a polarized discourse, implicated, together with the land itself, in a tragedy. And so, drawing on the very real qualities of the men I worked with and the remarks of several of them, I fabricated a man, stood him in the morning rain, put language in his mouth, and analyzed his apocryphal comment for signs of his mind and heart. I did it in search of a wholer truth than I had been hearing in the public debate. It felt true to me as I wrote it, and it feels true to me now.
Had I been writing journalism, I wouldn’t have created that man. I expect the journalist, myself included when I am writing as one, to portray as real only those persons and events he knows to be real, and to portray them as accurately as possible. But I wasn’t writing journalism. I was attempting a personal essay—a piece, I like to think, of literary art—and the essayist must be more than a chronicler of observed events. He must imagine his experience as thoroughly as he can, and by that I mean not to make unreal but to make more real. Like other literary artists, the essayist bears true witness by seeking the truest possible embodiment in images of the experience, whether inner or outer, that has engaged him.
But if it’s permissible for an essayist to invent a character and a conversation, what’s to keep him from inventing an entire narrative? What indeed. One of George Orwell’s best essays, "A Hanging," from his years as a British magistrate in Burma, is a closely described first-person account of helping to escort a condemned man to his execution. It turns on two seemingly trivial incidents. A dog prances up as the group approaches the gallows and leaps to lick the condemned man’s face. And Orwell, walking behind, watches the man step deftly aside to avoid a puddle in his path. Those actions, precisely rendered in plain-style prose, the kind of finely focused language I urge on all my students, induce in Orwell a flash of clarity in which he sees "the mystery, the unspeakable wrongness, of cutting a life short when it is in full tide."
Rather, I should say, they induce that realization in the narrator of the story. According to Bernard Crick, Orwell’s biographer and introducer of the Penguin edition of his essays, it is unlikely that Orwell ever attended a hanging, in Burma or anywhere else. (For those who know the essays, it’s unlikely as well that Orwell shot an elephant or as a boy was caned in front of his schoolmates for bed wetting.) Have we been betrayed? Sold out by a writer much vaunted for his honesty and integrity? Has he foisted a short story upon us in the guise of an essay?
Nonsense. He wrote a personal narrative, and maybe the time has come to quit being so fussy about the line between fictional and nonfictional narrative. Do we require other kinds of artists to toe that line? Is Van Gogh’s "Starry Night," for instance, a work of fiction or of nonfiction? Did he really see the stars that way, or did he make them up? The question is absurd, as absurd as it would be to ask a sculptor to hang tags on his work to identify which pieces, or which parts of pieces, are representational and which are not. The work speaks for itself, and so does Orwell’s essay. From his experience in Burma he had something to say about the British Empire and its very real practice of hanging native offenders, and he used his narrative imagination to make a far more compelling statement than would have been possible journalistically or in expository prose. Whether the piece should be classified "essay" or "short story" is a question of little importance. It is a piece of narrative art that bears authentic witness on the world as Orwell knew it.
As a writer I see no organic difference between what I do in memoir and narrative essay and what a fiction writer does in novel and short story. Both of us are trying to tell a story we need to tell, using the same technical devices to tell it, and trying to tell it the truest way we can. I do see a difference in responsibility. The fiction writer, if he wishes, may limit his imagination only to the demands of his characters and plot, while the essayist and memoirist must harness his imagination to the spirit, though not the absolute letter, of objective truth. But both kinds of work flow from the same storytelling need and desire, the same narrative fountain in the human psyche. As Thomas Hobbes wrote in Leviathan, "Imagination and memory are but one thing, which for divers considerations has divers names."
"Fiction" is probably the most appropriate existing term for the artistic products of the narrative fountain. It derives from the past participle of fingere, which means to shape or fashion (as well as to feign). All narrative is shaped and fashioned, both by conscious choice and by unconscious revision. Whether we think of ourselves as working from imagination or from memory, we are in both cases working with fabrications of experience, and our original perceptions of experience are themselves fabrications of the nameless flux in which we and our senses are continuously immersed, which we conveniently call life and the world. As Oliver Sacks has written, "When we open our eyes each morning, it is upon a world we have spent a lifetime learning to see. We are not given the world; we make our world…."
The writer is one who trains this necessary making into language, and so makes the world again. Through writing and reading he encourages his fabrications of experience; he conditions himself to respond in images and metaphors, in complexes of thought and feeling, in narrative lines. He grows richer with these fabrications as he grows older. When I was twenty I wanted to be a writer but thought I had nothing to write about. I misunderstood the problem. I had lots to write about—all of us do, at any age—but I didn’t yet have the inner means to compose, to re-member—put together again—my experience. Now, at fifty, I realize I have far more to write about than I’ll ever have time for.
Philosophically it’s an arguable case that none of the writing we call nonfiction is actually that. All of it comes of shaping and fashioning, and most of it comes down to one form or another of narrative. "What is history," said Napoleon, "but a fable agreed upon?" And what is biography but a story—not the story—of a life? What is science but a suite of stories we tell about physical being, revising them under a set of conventions known as the scientific method? Even journalists, though they must attempt only to mirror events, betray the true nature of their writings when they refer to them as "stories."
But I’m content to limit my argument to personal narrative. As I wander the continent of prose, following such tracks as seem promising, it’s clear enough that the region of memoir and narrative essay lies directly adjacent to the region of short story and novel. They share a similar topography, similar forms of life. They belong to the same natural province. The wall we have built to partition one from the other—each stone in the wall a "non" as in "nonfiction"—was never well made and never in fact necessary. It’s been crumbling for years, and why should we rebuild it? Let it fall to ruin, and let us recognize the greater province of personal narrative. Long may it live.