So much of what we do as writers is try to capture the truth about human nature and the world — whether in fiction, memoir, or non-fiction. In the name of truth, we drill down into our stories, ask why, why, why, and keep pushing ourselves to be open and generous of heart. It is difficult work.
I was reminded about this reality last week when I attended my husband’s 30th reunion at Amherst College. I spent my junior year at Amherst and was introduced to my husband by the three women with whom I lived that year. I only ended up in that room group because, at the last minute, the 4th roommate, Mary, went abroad, leaving them open to having a random exchange student dropped into their midst. Mary’s decision not to be there turned out to have an enormous impact on my life — and for 30 years, I have been telling the story of Mary’s departure like this:
She was a gifted golfer, and she left to spend the year in Scotland playing golf.
This story became part of the origin story of my marriage, and my family. I have told this story so many times that even my children know it inside and out. I often pictured the 20-year-old Mary competing on the historic links of the Scottish high country, filled with such passion for her sport that she felt compelled to leave her friends for a season, and completely unaware that her decision to go would ripple through an exchange student’s life. I believed this story to be 100% true, but I found out this weekend that it was all a lie.
Mary was a gifted golfer — that much is fact. She played in the Division 3 national golf finals her senior year of college. But this past weekend, when I was recounting the story at reunion, Mary happened to be sitting right next to me. (She has, over the last 30 years, become my friend and not just a ghostly absence in my life.) She looked askance at me, laughed, and said, “I didn’t go to Scotland. I went to Florence. And I didn’t play golf that year."
The world turned a few degrees on its axis. “Seriously?” I asked.
“Seriously,” she said.
Where had I come up with Scotland and golf? How had no one corrected me for 30 years? How could a person get something so completely wrong? And what did it say about me that I had done so? Did it make me an unworthy storyteller?
A note about Florence. As I wrote that line a second ago, I wondered if she had actually said Venice. It’s too late where Mary lives to ping her to find out…but the fact that I may have even gotten the CORRECTED version wrong is part of my point.
It’s extremely difficult to tell the truth.
We all perceive the world in ways that are uniquely ours. Our job is not actually to capture some objective truth, because it so often doesn’t exist – or doesn’t matter. Our job is to capture OUR truth so that others might glimpse theirs.
My truth is that one young woman’s passion for golf made way for me to meet the love of my life. The Scotland version of the tale is, in some critical way, the real story.
If I were writing memoir, I would have to include my wrongful telling in order to capture the truth.
If I were writing fiction, I would simply make it that Mary went to Scotland
I said on Tuesday that I was going to write more about Lin-Manuel Miranda and the making of Hamilton and I am working on that piece for next week. But here’s a juicy tidbit to add to this tale:
I bought the book Hamilton: The Revolution to get a behind-the-scenes glimpse of this genius at work. I actually bought it on the plane on the way home from the college reunion, and it arrived on my doorstep less than 10 hours later – a piece of factual truth stranger than fiction. Anyway, I open the book to read the introduction. And there on Page 2 is a story about how Lin-Manuel Miranda and his friend and chronicler Jeremy McCarter disagreed about the origin story for the blockbuster show – a moment at which they had both been present.
“…the narrative of the show’s creation amplifies the show’s themes, like the one about how stories harden into history,” writes McCarter, “…If we can’t keep our own histories straight, then the process of legacy formation that obsessed Hamilton and his contemporaries is even more fraught than we think, and the results more suspect.”
Which explains, in my mind, why we love and admire the writers who can capture the stories that most matter.