The dictionary defines memory as “something remembered from the past,” and it defines truth as “a fact or belief that is accepted as true.”
Do we have true memories, or just memories of the truth? I have been struggling with this concept for about six months as I transition from writing a memoir to writing fiction. The fact is that time has shaped my recollection of exactly-what-happened in my life. I am left with the lessons-learned-as-a-result and there is where the story resides.
Some friends who are writers have encouraged me to just outright lie—don’t claim it as fact or truth— tell whatever story I wish. If you embellish the truth to tell a story, is that creating fiction or telling a lie? How about: “Any similarities to real persons …” or “Ripped from the headlines!”
Is there a difference between creating a story about something that did not happen and recounting a true story, but getting the facts wrong?
Is There a Point to This?
By now your head should be spinning, I know that mine is. Last Saturday my wife and I went to A.C.T.’s Geary Theater in San Francisco to see their production of Playwright Anne Washburn’s show, Mr. Burns: a Post-electric Play.
The setting for this three-act story is post-apocalyptic Northern California. A group of strangers have gathered together at a campfire. To pass the time they start to re-create the Cape Feare episode of the long-running TV show, The Simpsons.
In the First Act, we get to see how memories are put to the test of time as each survivor helps to mold the story as lines of dialog are remembered, edited and put into the proper order. A loose performance structure begins to occur and in the midst of the disastrous circumstances facing the survivors we can see that they are hopeful and inspired.
The Second Act opens seven years later and Marge and Homer Simpson have become the Coin of the Realm. Traveling troupes of actors earn a meager living performing episodes of The Simpsons and competition is fierce among them. By this point the production companies have added commercials to the performances to make the experience more like watching the show on television (back when there were TVs). Life imitates Art imitates Life.
The Third Act opens 75 years into the future and the original villain, Sideshow Bob, has been replaced by the character of Mr. Burns—all the better to craft an even more wicked tale. Homer of Springfield has become Homer of Greece. A full-blown operetta breaks out and elevates a simple 30 minute animated TV show into a Lesson for the Ages.
I witnessed an evolution onstage, an evolution of memory over time. In the course of 2 hours I could see how time can alter facts. Absent online research tools, volumes of reference books, newspapers, and eye-witness accounts we only have each other. Banded together like the survivors, we do the best we can with what we have available, until someone else comes along with a more powerful set of truths.
Homer’s epic poem, The Odyssey, has over 12,000 lines and thousands of years later it is still performed around the world. Who knows how close to the original we are in today’s performances?
What to Take Away
When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.”
—The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance
I have come to terms with my small dilemma over writing fiction. It has dawned on me that many of the events that I have lived through, and recounted, contained snippets and anecdotes from others who were present at an event when I wasn’t. The gift of time has allowed me to mix all of our experiences together and tell a story from a point of view that no single one of us had at the time.
Does it really matter how we get to the place where we see the lesson unfold?
In the video below, we hear Anne Washburn prior to the 2012 World Premiere of her play at the Wooly Mammoth Theater Company in Washington, D.C.