Eight years ago as I pulled together the material that became The Heart and Craft of Lifestory Writing, I thought I knew the answer to that question: It's what really happened, or what you really think. It's basic honesty, plain and simple. Everybody knows that, right?
That's a good starting point, but based on what I’ve learned and discovered since then, that definition is incomplete and misleading. Some of my increased understanding is old news, things I knew that had not yet integrated into my life writing neuron cluster. Meanwhile, advances in the field of neuroscience continue to deepen understanding of how memory works. These discoveries have profound relevance for life writers. Here's a list of a few insights worth sharing:
Memory is fallible. Contrary to what you probably heard in psychology class, self-help seminars, and various other places, your subconscious is not packed with every minute detail of every sensation that ever entered your brain. Recent evidence shows that incoming data is filtered, scrubbed, compacted and consolidated. Unless it significantly relates one way or another to something you already know, most new material is filtered out.
Another stumbling block is that our brains often mistake vivid mental images for fact, embedding them as memory. This phenomenon explains many “suppressed” memories that may be planted by certain forms of questioning. Are those “true” memories? Debate rages on.
Memory morphs. Research shows that each time you recall an event or thought, current circumstances and thought become enmeshed in the memory, which may become buried in debris over time.
Perception is personal. If you have not yet done so, read my essay, Mayhem at Camp Ryla for a first person account of sensational and documented differences in personal perception as a simulated crime was committed. Elizabeth Loftus and other researchers have repeatedly verified my observations.
Truth is relative. As you take different points of view, you see truth in different lights. What was true without a doubt to you as a child may look quite different after fifty years of life experience. What seems true to a child is something entirely different to a parent. Experts often disagree on the truth of such fundamentals as the meaning of scripture.
Truth is situational. You may already have noticed how you select aspects of thought depending on who you are talking to. Conversation and writing are both shaped by our perceptions of the people we address. Time dictates filtering. Even if we had all the time in the world, shaping our message for best understanding is also important.
So, again, what is truth? Amazon is full of books on this topic. Here’s my current take. Today my best answer is that truth is found at the core of my being. It’s as ephemeral as an atom, lacking substance and location, but forming the essence of being. I recognize truth as a sensation of rightness or “inner knowingness” that washes over me as my beliefs, values, memories and experience converge in a single bright spot.
Truth does not trump fear, nor does speaking or writing it promise a smooth path. Speaking, writing and living in conformance with truth as you believe and understand it does lead to a sense of integrity and personal peace.
Story that springs from the well of truth within you shines the most brightly. You don’t need to blurt it out. You can veil it, scatter it, turn it upside down. But if it isn’t there, your story will ring hollow.
Writing, especially (but not only) journaling, may be the most powerful way to arrive at your truth. William Faulkner is credited with first saying, “I never know what I think about something until I read what I’ve written about it.” The longer you work on a story, the more you dig for detail, the more deeply you know the truth of that story, and the truth of yourself.
Write now: even if you’ve done this before, start fresh and write about a cornerstone memory, ideally one with volatile emotional content. As you write, as yourself the question, “Is this really true?” Keep writing until the answer to that question is “YES!” Then write the true story.