My Brain on Story

Brain on Story
An ongoing, passionate, urge to write is upon me. Primarily I’m engrossed in creating a second edition of The Heart and Craft of Lifestory Writing. I began writing that book ten years ago. All print runs have sold out, and I told the publisher I did not want it to continue as a Print On Demand volume. I feel compelled to freshen it up with new insights rather than perpetuating what seems like a stale version. 

As I finally found the energy to rip into the guts, I found the courage to question everything I said, and I’m ripping it apart with abandon. I’d forgotten how energizing it can be to smash into things with a sledge hammer. Many years ago I literally hammered out tile and sawed out fiberglass in two bathroom renovations. What fun! This book may also be stripped to studs, and it may take way longer than the four to six weeks I’d intended. 

Or maybe not. Story has me by the brain. I’m dreaming about how to express things. Is that sleeping or writing? Mostly the latter. If I don’t get up and get it on the page, I’ll lie awake, afraid I’ll forget. Nothing will do but to hit the keyboard while it’s clear in mind. Keep a notepad by my bed? Great idea, but I don’t sleep alone, so I’d get up anyway to write the note. Then I’m awake. 

In the wee hours this morning my essay, Mayhem at Camp RYLA (download from the Free Stuff tab) came to mind. A couple of weeks ago my son-in-law and daughter and I got into a hammer and tongs discussion about the nature of Truth. I used the example from my essay of the water pistol being misinterpreted as a real gun. Sally Johnson had an extreme response to what she perceived as gun fire. The gun produced as evidence was a water pistol. Nobody knew until later that Sally worked as a bank teller and had been involved less than three months earlier in an armed robbery where a bystander was hit by a stray bullet. The mere glint of sunshine on a gun was enough to trigger a traumatic flashback. That young woman was suffering from PTSD. Nobody knew. Not even her. 

My point at dinner was that to Sally, that object in Mary’s hand was indisputably a pistol full of bullets. That was absolute truth to her, and from her point or view, absolute truth to me. 

“No. There is no way that is true. She may have thought it was true, but the fact is that gun was a water pistol and she was wrong!” Passions were running high, but I stood my ground, realizing that the best I could hope for was for us to agree to disagree. I was tired after three days attending a conference and not on my toes. I may pursue the matter again, because I feel strongly that it’s important for people, especially opinion leaders such as they are, to recognize that Truth comes in fifty shades of white, and I’m not sure that they do. The empirically documentable fact remains that Mary was carrying a water pistol.

But that doesn’t make Sally’s instant perception wrong or untrue. To her, that was a pistol loaded with bullets. Reconciling her instant perception with the reality of the water pistol was almost as traumatic for her as the original assault had been. I wish now I’d stayed in touch with her. Traumatic or not, it seems like a good thing that she recognized the effect of the trauma as soon as she did. 

But what if the junior staff had roared back out of camp and disposed of the evidence like they would have on television? Life is seldom so simple. In that case, we would not have had empirical truth. Sally’s perception would stand. Would that make it more true? I submit that it would. 

Furthermore, each camper saw and experienced the event in a unique way and left with different interpretations. It probably had the most dramatic and lasting impact on Sally and me. As noted in the essay, I was conducting workshops on communication skills at the time, with an emphasis on active listening and the filters involved. I’ve used this event as am example in classes and workshops countless times over the years. 

This morning I woke to see that event as worthy of much deeper exploration, and it may play a large role in the introductory material in the Second Edition. Now I can go back to sleep. Maybe. Stay tuned!

Points to Ponder: How often have you been in a situation where you were sure of something that turned out otherwise? How did this discovery affect you? How did it affect your “story” about what happened? Did you try looking at the situation from other eyes? How could shifting perspectives change a story you’re writing or thinking about writing? Considering alternate points of view can dramatically change a story, even your view of life. 


Amy said...

This issue comes up all the time in law, naturally. Eyewitness accounts are easily discredited. People don't see clearly when under stress. So juries are charged not with finding the absolute truth, but with the "truth" as perceived by the parties involved. We can never really know "the truth" because it differs for all of us on matters of perception. Juries determine guilt based in large part on state of mind, not "actual reality."

My husband and I have many arguments based on the fact that we remember events that we both witnessed and even participated in so differently. I insist am right, he says he is. Is my truth better than his? Well, I think so! :)

Karen Walker said...

I love that you're energized again about writing. It is a very deep question to ask what is Truth? Because you're right, everyone's perception of a thing is different. There was a movie years ago by a Japanese director that showed the same story from different character's perspectives. I can't remember the name. Maybe we all need to learn to say, "Here's the truth as I see it." But if we look at religion and politics, this doesn't begin to address all those people who believe they know the absolute truth. Sigh!

Sharon Lippincott said...

Amy, thank you for that legal perspective. My experience at Camp RYLA was about the time Elizabeth Loftus began her research on the topic of eye witness accuracy, and ultimately (my perspective is) that her consistent, long-term work was not the only factor, but the game-changing one for the legal system beginning to discount eye-witness testimony. I always see my essay as ad hoc support for the structured, controlled peer-reviewed reports.

I treasure the fact that my husband remembers differently. At least half my new acquaintances down here in Austin are widows. They confirm that they feel like they "lost half my mind" when their husbands died.

My sister and I finally realized that although we agree on things like addresses where we each lived during childhood, parent and sibling names, and other empirical facts, we grew up in different families, so we recall life in radically different ways and both be right. Maybe the liberal dosages of Scotch we each consumed helped, but we've never argued about the past since that night.

Sharon Lippincott said...

Karen, thanks for chiming in. I think the movie you refer to is actually The Manchurian Candidate, in which a platoon of U.S. soldiers is brainwashed by the Commies. As the movie unfolds, the platoon commander begins having nightmares, years later, I think, and a sinister plot unfolds as he and another soldier race to discover The Truth. Thanks for reminding me of this. Hmm. Do I want to watch it again? It's usually available in libraries.

Amy said...

My typical debate with my husband goes something like this:

Me: Remember when we had dinner with A and B five years ago the Friday after Thanksgiving?

Him: Sure we ate in the backroom of C's restaurant?

Me: Yes, it was C's restaurant, but we were in the front room. I remember it like it was yesterday because we sat near the fireplace.

Him: No, we sat in the back where the piano was.

And so on and so on. It usually ends with us both exasperated and both sure we are right! We had this argument a week ago, and I contacted A and B, both of whom remembered the dinner just as I did, but my husband said, "Well, I remember it differently." No concession. :)

Sharon Lippincott said...

Too funny Amy! Sounds like you and your husband have honed the skill of arguing to a fine art over the years. Life with a lawyer must be a challenge at times, LOL.

My husband would be the one who remembered which restaurant. I'd just remember we went to one, so no cause for argument. He's the one who drives when we're out of the country, and he's the one who pays attention to maps. I remember seeing things, but have no idea where. He knows where. We make a good team.

Amy said...

Marriage between two lawyers can be interesting! We can argue any point to death (though almost always without getting angry, thank goodness). You do seem to have a good division of memory labor there!