Nine 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.