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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.