During a recent discussion, someone (I’ll call her Darla) mentioned that she “needed to learn more about my grandmother’s history so I can explain why she acted the way she did and why she was so over-protective.”
Although this aspiring memoir writer had only the best of intentions in mind, her comment set a couple of red flags flapping for me. Life story or memoir writers who claim to know why someone else did something, or what that person was thinking, lose credibility with me. Here’s my thinking on this topic:
|#1||Only fiction writers can explain why someone else acted as he or she did, or what that person thinks, and only then when writing in the third person. Darla’s granny is long gone, so there is no way Darla can tell us why she acted as she did. Even if Granny were available, Darla could only report what Granny told her, what she observed Granny doing, or her own speculation about why Granny did what she did.|
|#2||This is Darla’s story. It’s about her experiences, thoughts and reactions. It doesn’t matter why Granny did anything. The fact that Granny did do something is what affected Darla. Granny’s deeds and Darla’s reaction and understanding are key story elements, not the reasons why Granny acted as she did.|
If Darla wants to do research on her grandmother’s history and speculate on why things were as they were, that speculation may be relevant, but to maintain credibility, she’ll be well-advised to use phrases like probably, it seems like, or might have as she spins her tale.
Speculations about motives and reflections on your understanding of other people’s behavior can add important context to your stories, and will shed light on the way you view things. Examples of behavior are a great way to support your reflections and weave them seamlessly into the narrative. For example, one of my grandmothers had eccentric gift-giving habits, as shown by the following example:
Granny didn’t even bother to wrap the battered old suitcase she used to hold the collection of used kitchen items she gave me as a wedding present. For a few months I resented the fact that she gave me cruddy old cast iron skillets and dishes she’d used for years. She could have afforded to buy me new things. I felt like she was telling me I wasn’t good enough for new things. Then I realized that she had given me things she had used. All of it was useful, and it reminded me of her more powerfully than anything new would have. It gave me a sense of connection with her, of continuity between generations. Maybe she was being stingy – that wouldn’t be surprising considering the austere circumstances of most of her life – but it doesn’t matter. I came to love her old gifts, and I’ve already promised to pass those by-now-antique cast iron skillets on to my granddaughter when she marries.By showing what Granny did (gave me used gifts), and how my attitude toward them changed, I’ve given you a view of Granny and also my own thought. Would you believe me if I tried to explain why Granny did what she did? Does that matter?
As you write stories involving other people, especially people who aren’t available to explain their versions of things, be sure you stick to your own story and your understanding of what they did. You can only speak for yourself.
Write now: do some writing practice using a person you make excuses for, at least to yourself as your prompt. In your writing tell what happened to the person to cause what you consider to be inappropriate or disappointing behavior, how you feel about it, and how you handle and explain it. Use examples of behavior. If you feel inspired, turn this account into a story.