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Our Life Narratives, The Problem Of Truth, And The Natural Elasticity Of Our Perception

The other day, I wrote seven short dust-jacket synopses of my early twenties. Each synopsis was about the same period of of my life, but the different focus of each of them made it sound like I was writing about completely different times and people.

None of them was a lie. Each synopsis was simply organized around a separate theme that threaded itself through my life.

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I wrote the synopses as an exercise to show a friend how elastic our life narratives really are. She has been struggling with writing the truth of her story, and I wanted to help her see how maleable this so-called truth can be depending on the message we want to deliver.

Pushing and pulling our narratives into particular shapes is not essentially deceitful. It is something we all do all the time. We push our own experiences into the service of particular messages either to make ourselves look at our own lives in a certain way or to engage and teach others about a particular idea.

For instance, I have spent much of my time in the years since my early twenties concentrating almost primarily on the events that point out how I hurt someone terribly that I loved very much. It's obvious that much more went on over those years aside from instances of my being immature and thoughtless, but I chose to focus on the narrative that best supported my guilt. I was not only immature and thoughtless during those years, and so the narrative I chose to obsess over is obviously not the whole story.

The storyline that stars me as a duplicitous cuckold is not a lie, but it definitely isn't representative of my entire early twenties. It is but one narrative in a sea of many, and it has been my go-to tool for self-flagellation for nearly two decades.

Where the truth lies beyond the facts is difficult, if not impossible, to suss out, and I lean into the belief that there is no essential truth to find in an absolute sense. Every story is not only coloured but also, at root, created by our individual perspectives. Narratives that reach beyond the factual accounting of times and dates rely on the individual perspective of the narrator and the perceived needs of the narrator and/or audience to grow the flesh that allows them to be more than grocery lists of events.

The meaning within our stories happens beyond the accounting of the facts.

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Instead of those seven dust-jacket synopses, I could have written hundreds of thousands of pages, if not millions, detailing the ins and outs of my days over that five-year period. I could tell you about every toothbrush I bought and what time I woke up every morning for 1826 days and how many steps I took to the corner of Broadway and 11th before turning right at 2:37 in the afternoon on the 3rd of July in 1995, but I doubt there would be much value in the chronological, technical minutiae of nearly two thousand days.

Does the truth of my life story lie only in the facts? No, but neither can it be found in the narrative choices I make to tell you about my chosen thread. The truth of my life shifts in both small and large ways with each movement I make, and my perspective on all of the stories from my days before this moment shift along with it.

I wonder sometimes if the divide between fiction and nonfiction when it comes to personal narrative is at least partially defined by intention. My intention is to be honest here to the best of my abilities. I won't lie outright about the facts of where I've been and what I do and who I am, but I am certain that self-deception and ignorance lead to inaccuracies at times.

This wandering line between fiction and nonfiction used to worry me. How honest was I being? Had my being fanciful dipped into too much twisting of the truth? Was my own perception of the meaning in a story actually a perversion of the empirical data?

I worry less now about digging away at what I once hoped to be the absolute truth. A story I told ten years ago through the lens of my 28-year-old self has changed now that I see it through my 38-year-old self's lens, and yet what I see in that story is no less or more true now than it was then. Meaning is shifty that way. It's not like a receipt stapled into a tax file.

We don't get to take comfort in absolute truth. Clinging to absolutes is a sign of fear and panic, not rightness and conviction.

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I am by no means advocating that all personal narratives are the equivalent of fiction and that we should all lie with impunity unto the service of the story and its message. What I am advocating for is the therapeutic acknowledgement of the natural elasticity of our perception of our own lives and the allowance for the stories we tell ourselves to grow and to change as we do.

Bits of yourself speak to you from your past about what happened then, and the you of now speaks to those stories about how they sit in the context of all that has happened since, and you become a powder keg of stories informing stories.

Instead of fussing over a phantom essential truth behind our personal experience, I find it more useful to look into the meaning within the shifting sands of our narratives, to dig into the why and how of the stories we tell. When I write about my life, I ask myself:

  • Why this story, and why tell it now?
  • Who am I within this story, what role am I taking, and why do I see myself in that position?
  • What judgments of myself and others are framed by the story, why are those judgments there, and what purpose do my judgments serve within the story?
  • If I told this story from another angle — if I chose to write about what the food at the table evoked rather than the particulars of the dinner conversation, for example — what would it convey?
  • Have I treated each of the story's foundational elements with respect and compassion so that I can understand why they are there and how they interact with the other parts of the story?
  • What triggered my need to tell this particular story now?
  • What does the story have to offer myself and others by its being told?

  • Do you struggle with the line between fiction and nonfiction in your personal narratives? What drives you to tell your stories? What keeps you from telling some of them?