The Middle Distance 1.25.13: Songs of Innocence & Experience

Audio clip: Adobe Flash Player (version 9 or above) is required to play this audio clip. Download the latest version here. You also need to have JavaScript enabled in your browser.

Photo by Sean Cayton


The older I get, the more I understand that the personal stories I tell are factually true only in part, and that how I choose to tell them says a lot about who I am on this journey, this solo adventure, this one-shot gig on Planet Earth.

I’m not talking about deliberate lies, though they are part of the truth-telling equation as well. I’m talking about what we omit in our representations of ourselves to others, and what we embellish with loving detail.

In the final tally of our life experience, which truths really count?

Here’s an exercise I always do with my nonfiction writing students. First, I tell them, think of the story you always tell, the way something happened, a story you tell over and over at family gatherings, around the dinner table, or to your friends.

Now, I say, tell it the way it really happened.

You might, for example, tell your prom story, one you’ve told many times, about how you were asked out by the handsome guy from chemistry class, and how that much anticipated date turned out to be a real bomb. You didn’t have anything to talk about, he was a bore, and you wanted to be with your friends instead of with him. You might have edited this story over the years, adding details with each telling: blond hair, arm muscles, bushy eyebrows, a striking intellect, a mysterious air about him. Or you might have given him tics to heighten your unhappiness at the dance: bad breath, sexist attitude, sweaty palms.

But what about the way it really happened? His growing boredom throughout the evening, and the aggressive groping in the car when he took you home, borderline date rape, though that wasn’t a term you were familiar with back in 1970, and how that sent you running into the house disheveled, disillusioned, ashamed and confused.

One of the stories I’ve revisited many times is how I was a tomboy in junior high school, living on the edge of a new town in West Tennessee, where I hung out with the boys in my grade, swimming in the muddy waters of Wolf Creek in the summer, smoking cigarettes and sneaking into motel swimming pools on the highway with my buddies Harry and James. I listened to their romantic woes, and their complaints about the girls they courted, a fly on the wall of their burgeoning manhood. The story I haven’t told, an important part of how it really happened, was about how terrifying it was to be a girl, a hopeful girl with social ambitions, in that time and place, with an absent father and a distracted mother, in a town where older boys liked to take their pick of younger girls, virgins on the verge, and play with them ravenously, dangerously, in fast cars, in darkened houses, in forests on the outskirts of town with secret parties and illegal beer kegs. The girl I most admired, a girl my age, a free spirit, the girl I wanted to be, died while still a teenager, riding on the back hood of one of those boys’ cars, likely drunk, thrown off, her head bashed on the curb, her beauty extinguished.

Songs of innocence; songs of experience.

What if I told you I was married at 20 to my high school sweetheart, in a garden at his college, a magical place with tall trees where fairies might live, and that among the guests at our wedding were all the little girls from the Memphis ghetto where I worked, dressed in stiff Sunday finery, and kids on their bikes who just happened to be riding by? And that for our reception, we threw all the furniture out of the Kappa Sigma fraternity house and scoured the floors and served cake off of card tables? What would you think?

But what if I told you this: that my father refused to come to my wedding because his new wife, my mother’s lifelong friend, wasn’t invited, and that my mother was a basket case from her recent divorce and I had to figure out how to get a piano to the garden so there could be music, and that I cried the night before to my best friend, up from Mobile, Alabama, and how my fiancé had called me from his bachelor party, begging me to come pick him up and take him home? What would you think then?

Both stories are equally true, and in the final accounting, they add up to a bigger truth, an unexpected life, a story worth telling.

[This piece originally ran on 4/1/2011]

Kathryn Eastburn is the author of A Sacred Feast: Reflections of Sacred Harp Singing and Dinner on the Ground, and Simon Says: A True Story of Boys, Guns and Murder in the Rocky Mountain West. You can comment and read or listen to this column again at The Big Something at KRCC.org. “The Middle Distance” is published every Friday on The Big Something and airs each Saturday at 1 p.m. right after This American Life.

 

4 Responses to The Middle Distance 1/25/13: Songs of Innocence & Experience

  1. rose enyeart says:

    Oh, wow Truth and editing. How we stay real to ourselves. How we protect ourselves from some really scary history. Wow again. I felt it in my flesh.

  2. Paula says:

    The question is, how to determine to whom you tell the real story???

  3. Jac says:

    What would I think, then? I would think your life had some of the elements I also experienced in mine. Families bubbling in turmoil underneath the veneer. Is that the true norm? And, then there are the bits to our stories that we totally forget about. Three components to the stories. I always enjoy reading your words, Kathryn.

  4. Kathy Allen says:

    Individual perception — our personal filters on life!

News

May 29, 2016 | NPR · Today marked the 100th running of the Indianapolis 500. We get the sounds from today’s historic race, won by rookie driver Alexander Rossi.
 

May 29, 2016 | NPR · The Libertarian nominee for president criticizes both the Democrats and Republicans and argues that if he is included in debates and national polls he could bring in a significant portion of votes.
 

May 29, 2016 | NPR · Each year the Library of Congress adds certain sound recordings as national treasures. Curator of Recorded Sound Matthew Barton explains the cultural significance of this year’s selections.
 

Arts & Life

May 29, 2016 | NPR · Rolling the R’s tells the stories of restless teenagers in the disco era in a gritty neighborhood in Hawaii. Author R. Zamora Linmark discusses the book’s impact, 20 years after it first came out.
 

May 29, 2016 | NPR · Heather Shumaker and Stephanie Land are two parenting writers with different ideas about how class and conventional wisdom shape the modern view of parenting.
 

May 29, 2016 | NPR · Beth Howland died in December at age 74. One of her best known roles, was as the original Amy in Stephen Sondheim’s “Company.” Looking into her past can lead you down a pop culture spiral.
 

Music

May 29, 2016 | NPR · Each year the Library of Congress adds certain sound recordings as national treasures. Curator of Recorded Sound Matthew Barton explains the cultural significance of this year’s selections.
 

Courtesy of the artist
May 29, 2016 | NPR · The British songwriter began her career in 1999 with an album that was a breakout success. Years later, she says she looks on that younger version of herself with the protectiveness of a big sister.
 

Courtesy of the artist
May 29, 2016 | NPR · A classically trained cellist with songs rooted in Haitian folk, McCalla embraces the intersections of art and history in her work. Her new album is A Day for the Hunter, a Day for the Prey.
 

Get the KRCC iPhone App

The Writer's Almanac

Radiolab