What Is TRUTH?

Write-TruthNine 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, what is truth: 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 as I've learned since then, that's both incomplete and misleading. Some of my increased understanding is old news, things I knew that had not integrated into my cluster of life writing neurons. Meanwhile, advances in the study of memory continue to deepen understanding. These discoveries have profound  relevance for life writers. Here's a list of a few evolving insights worth sharing:

Memory is fallible. Contrary to what you probably heard in psychology class, self-help seminars, and various other places, you do not remember every minute detail of every sensation that ever entered your brain. Recent evidence shows that incoming data is filtered, scrubbed and consolidated. Irrelevant material is unlikely to be retained. Furthermore, our brains often mistake vivid mental images for fact, embedding them as memory.

Memory morphs.
Research shows that each time you recall an event or thought, current circumstances and thought become enmeshed in the memory, and the initial memory may become buried in debris over time. Compare this to your story files on disk. You may save your initial draft. Then you edit and save again. You may repeat that process twenty times, perhaps changing only a word or two each time you read. Five years later, if you had a copy of that original draft, you may not recognize it as the same story. But you didn't save the original, so there's now way to know.

Perception is personal and situational.
In 1978 I grew sick of my long, hippie hair. I was enrolled in an off-campus graduate program at Central Washington U at the time, and made the hundred mile drive to the Ellensburg campus every couple of weeks. One day I left early and stopped at a hair salon before a lunch date with my mentor. Although I felt foxy as heck with my sleek new bob, I could barely see beyond a new fringe of bangs invading my view. My next stop was the library. When I stepped up to the checkout desk, I heard a man say, "Oh, my GOD!" A bomb exploded in my self-absorbed brain. Could my hair be that bad? I swung around and saw him gaping at a document.

Truth is relative.
This perspective is based on the one above. In my essay, Mayhem at Camp RYLA, I cite the example of a young woman who worked as a bank teller and was held up at gunpoint a few months earlier. Shots were fired, though not at her. During a simulated crime at Camp RYLA, she saw an object held at arms' length, pointed in her direction. Not only did she tearfully swear under oath at the mock trial that a gun had been pointed at her, but that she'd heard a shot. That belief was so strong and true for her that she went into near meltdown at the revelation the "gun" had been a plastic water pistol.

Truth is situational and sometimes inconsistent.
Victims of abuse often testify to this. "I loved him," they claim, years after they got brave enough to leave. "I really loved him. And I hated him when he beat me. Sometimes I wished he was dead." Those feelings, those truths, can exist side-by-side for decades.

So, you see, although I don't deny the existence of universal truths like the power of love, story truth is fuzzy, fleeting and personal.Write your story the way you see it, the way it's real and true to you. If you find truth changing as you write, consider yourself blessed.

Write now:
Make a list of beliefs about what you hold true. Jot down a few examples of each. Then ask yourself Byron Katie's question, "Is this really, really true?" and "How do I know it's true?" You may be surprised by what you learn.


Carol Bodensteiner said...

True and the truth, Sharon. Memory is fascinating. An NPR interview discussed the reality that our memories also change to reflect and support how we see/need to see ourselves in the present.

Sharon Lippincott said...

That interview sounds fascinating Carol. Maybe I can find it in their archives. What they say about memory changing to support how we see/need to see ourselves today squares with my experience.

Anne Becker said...

This was very interesting to me, Sharon. I have see references to some of the current research on memory since publishing my own memoir of childhood, Ollie Ollie In Come Free. It's given me a lot to think about, and I appreciated your comments on some of the major findings.

Sharon Lippincott said...

Congratulations on publishing your memoir Anne. Isn't it amazing how a story keeps growing and changing even after committed to ink between book covers? That could be a story in itself.

Marian Beaman said...

This is a post I must print. I am with my sisters now and our recollections of incidents in childhood is different, sometimes radically different. Only one of us is writing memoir, though - me! So I will forge ahead with my version of the truth in this my first draft.

Incidentally, I am keeping a separate journal of my journey of truth-telling. It's a great place to vent! Thank you for the update on memory research, Sharon.

Sharon Lippincott said...

Marian, I hope you and your sisters can laugh about your differences and explore reasons in good spirits. My sister and I finally realized we grew up in different families. In our case, a bottle of Scotch helped smooth the way, but that's a risky road, as likely to get ugly as yield good results. Good to hear about your journal of truth-telling. That could become a memoir in another dozen years ... Be brave and keep writing YOUR truth, as you've done so well so far.

tips said...


Elaine Mansfield said...

In a psychology class at Cornell in 1963, a "surprise" murder was staged in the large classroom as the students watched. Then we were asked to write what we heard and saw. The variability in weapon, number of shots, number of criminals, and even the sex of the victim was wild and taught me forever that eye witness accounts are unreliable, even if the eyes are mine. The evidence has only mounted. I write memoir anyway because I love to read it and learn how others make meaning out of life. I'm always interested in the subjective position of the author. Thanks so much for this stimulating blog.

Sharon Lippincott said...

Thanks for the awesome testimonial Elaine. It mirrors my Camp RYLA experience cited above. Or if you look at time, RYLA mirrored your class. That was not the intention of our exercise, but a rich bonus. Yes, memoir is a great way of making sense of what we've gone through, and what else matters than making sense of life?