My storytelling hero, Jean Shepherd, is an interesting case in the concept of empirical truth versus story truth, in that his long career as a radio novelist had him telling stories over and over, with details emerging and fading, connections made and broken and refashioned, and by the end of his career, it was hard to know what was fact, what was fiction, what sort of happened and what didn't. Because there are literally thousands of hours of tape, carefully made and archived by the people who got Shepherd, one can go back and trace out the way the tales changed, but it's all beside the point. I don't care if Flick was a real person or an evolving composite. If Shepherd was reporting on human rights abuses in Sweden, it would matter, but stories are stories, and the truth only becomes an issue because jittery legalistic types, feeling burned by the fact that James Frey and Augusten Xon Burroughs's wild tales were called "memoir" to compensate for lousy storytelling. Good lies don't evoke doubt, and good stories are good lies, almost to a letter.
Thing is, if someone's recounting a story from their childhood that includes dialogue and they're not Marilu Henner—they're writing fiction. It's not a deceptive fiction, which is the key point, but rather a reconstructive falsehood, because as clear and bold as childhood memories can be, you're always working to recreate the moment, not justifying the accuracy of the Scriptures.
People used to always ask me if the stories I tell are true, and the fact is that they are, moreso when I tell them well, because I've managed to cram a hell of a lot of awkward circumstances and random occurrences into forty-four years of my schlubby existence. In telling, though, I leave things out, and I pick the best possible phrasing to make the story feel like I want it to feel.
When showing off the clock tower where I work, I describe an incident where I had to call my boss to tell her that falcons broke the elevator, I'm creating a feeling by reducing what happened to its most ridiculous essence. It's a bit of metafiction I use to set up the backstory, in which peregrine falcons in Baltimore hunt pigeons, eat them on the roof of my clock tower, and leave the heads behind to wash into the roof drain. Drain clogs with heads, big storm floods the roof up to a spot that lets water pour right down, through three floors, until it drips into the 1922 control mechanism of the 1911 Otis elevator and renders the elevator inoperative.
It's true to say "falcons broke the elevator," too, and that's a funnier line.
Leaving stuff out isn't true, but it's true.
"Joe, seriously," my friends have asked. "Are those stories about your old girlfriend true?"
That's a lie, of course. No one's asked me that question quite like that, and I phrased it thusly because I have some grasp on writing dialogue in a way that makes it read true, and I'm not perpetrating a fraud by doing so, except in framing, but framing is the vile necessity of a world without telepathy—if I want you to feel what I felt in the moment I'm describing, I need to use the tools of telling the story to make that happen.
In the same way I think all people who write struggle with this issue, I struggle sometimes to figure out if I'm just fooling myself, and if I'm just a huge liar and a pathological blowhard, but I already know that that's true. Writing about truth is awkward because any good storyteller has to play the game language and convention imposes on us, and you wonder, like a magician with a bloody oversized saw, if copping to the fact that we live in worlds that are true to us and to others only as much as craft and trust can open that permeable boundary between speaker and listener will discredit us, and break that suspension of belief that we need in order to tell our stories.
I used to take the hard line, insisting that everything is exactly true, hand-on-the-good-book, scout's three raised fingers and all, but it's just such an ugly, cold place, that realm of the always-true. It's not even always-true, the always-true, because every chosen word and every carefully selected adjective is a moment where a story can turn from a sketch to a living thing, fleshed-out and breathing and full of fun and fury and fire, even in the precise region we call journalism. What's the camera angle saying? Who's the author? Who's the listener? What's the inspiration for why we're telling this.
My stories are all fictional, but then so is my life. When this moment passes, the one just ahead of the cursor in this little open window to a common daydream we share here, there's the written history and what I remember, and even the written history is subject to how open and how fair I felt as I opened my mouth to speak or flexed my fingers to type. You lie by exclusion, by leaving out details, or by writing dialogue that omits the "umm" and "uh" and stammering and random crap you say, or by flattering yourself by pretending you're not the kind of guy who's always interrupting. The world becomes slightly brighter, or lit in a golden glow, or harder, more complicated, more amusing, and more...whatever.
Still, sometimes, you have a moment of clarity, and you remember it perfectly, but it's not made of language. It's just a place and a time when you were there, right there, just in the instant and not immersed in the chatter of your inner monologue, and it is when something about the world changed for you, something raw and wonderful and full of genuine 24 carat awe.
I went for a walk one night because it was foggy out and I love the fog, and the way it brings the ceiling of the world so close that you don't have to worry about the unbearable infiniteness of things. My dog was relaxed on her lead, leaving the perfect little arc of braided nylon between us, and I paused at the corner by the Armory as a sedan rumbled by. On the front walk of the Armory, a little tree stood, and it was early enough in the season that its leaves hadn't come in yet, making it look like a huge, tangled sculpture of lines.
Behind the tree, a buzzing mercury lamp lit the fog in a cold blue-grey light, and the way the light came through the branches on the tree made the hair bristle on the back of my neck. Every gap, and every branch, interrupted the light like blades slicing up a fuzzy ball of cotton, so that the tree just radiated this glorious mass of rays, fading into the haze. I stood for a moment, noticing how every breath I took seemed to make the rays move, almost like the tree was breathing in perfect sync with me, then stepped forward.
The light changed like a kaleidoscope turned impossibly inside-out, and every move made it different and then different and then different, a three dimensional canvas of protons fleeing their electrochemical source, and as I marveled at what a beautiful thing it was, this moving work of intangible art, something occurred to me—it wasn't moving at all. My perspective on that cool, still evening was the movement, and I was seeing something in slices like frames of a film as if it was in motion, but every form and shape and contour and hard-edged cut to those rays of blue-grey light was already there, all at once, visible from any angle, but translated into something else by nothing more complicated than a step in any direction.
How you look at a thing makes the thing become what you see.
That walk, and that stopping point, are a fixed part of my memory, one of the ones that I can recount with more accuracy than most, because it's a point where a paradigm changed. Sometimes, it's a moment where your heart's being broken, or when you figure out how something works, or when you get an insight into another person that makes all the difference.
I don't relate, generally, that my dog, in the middle of my blissful moment there, arched her back and started shitting while I was having this epiphany, and that the light also made a dark tunnel of her shadow, with the little bits of motion as the crap fell and as her tail cranked like a pump handle in that hard floodlight as it always did in such incidents. I didn't incorporate that fact that there was an unusual amount of farting and spluttering involved, too, which would later make the bit with the plastic bag unusually nauseating, leading to me ending up doubled over as I kept the bile down. I leave out the sounds of the squeaky sneakers on polished wood coming from the basketball court inside the Armory, or the number of cars that actually passed by along the way, or that I was listening to Sergio Mendes and Brazil '66 on my earphones and not something more meditative.
Sometimes, I relate this story with the dog excised altogether, or change the year, the season, the way I felt, or the reason I was out there, though those things change because they're less present for me, and even less so as time passes.
"Did that really happen?" asks the rhetorical device, and I have to nod.
Yes. I was there. How you look at a thing makes the thing become what you see.
When I'm successful, truthful, and when I let myself truly revisit the moment, the story is true, even when I get the details wrong. When I'm too loose with the corroboration, or a little full of myself, it loses resolution, drifting into that blowhard realm of pompous philosophical object lessons, and the reader loses a little faith in what I have to say. In everything, you have to ponder why a tale is being told. When it's just showmanship and novelty, anything can be true if the skill is there. When it's something to share because I was there, and felt those feelings, and learned something, the requirement of craftsmanship is a bit less demanding, but it's always there. The most perfectly empirical, exactly precise, overwhelmingly accurate event ever described is always subject to translation from moment into strings of sounds and marks on pages that convey some rendition of what went on.
The older I get, the truer my stories become, even when I'm recounting the ones swiftly receding into the past. When you're young and inexperienced, there's a crutch in the gory detail or the absurd circumstance, but the more you learn, the more you hurt, the more you lose, and the more you find patience trumping arrogance, the less you need to draw people in with the old Grand Guignol stage show, artlessly drawing up that raconteur's chair to hold court. When I was young, I lied and fortified and embellished because I never felt like my life was worth sharing, and the real and the surreal competed for attention, but I've had my heart broken, lost whole lifetimes of friendship, and failed on scales so grotesque as to require no elaboration. These days, I delete, I trim, I edit, and leave out the farting and the nausea for the most part, but even the best story is just a few rays radiating from a tree on a foggy night, destined to catch just enough of what made it worth telling without lapsing into physics and phenomenology.
So this thing happened to me the other day—
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