Does Mom Tell Stories?
I was telling a story over dinner with friends the other day, and everyone was laughing (I’m pleased to say), and I added, “True story! True story! You can ask Rebecca!” (My wife.) It’s the sort of thing one says a hundred times in a year–more if, like me, your friends think of you as a writer for whom exaggeration is a professional hazard (Stendhal said, “With me it is a fundamental belief that when a man speaks, he lies,” but I think the observation is especially uncomfortable to writers)–yet this time I said it, it made me pause. Not because of “Reality Hunger,” or any worries we might have about the exactness of David Sedaris’s vignettes, or the inexactness or downright fraudulence of so much memoir, or even because of the interesting puzzle of why, exactly, true stories seem to matter more to us than false ones (do I learn more from a reality TV show that a Shakespeare play? Does the former move me more than the latter? Is it psychologically more acute? Does it count for more?). No. I paused because I realized that Rebecca–a constitutionally truthful person if I’ve ever known one, though Lord knows she lies too, like the rest of us–was happily and with good conscience confirming the facts of my (I suppose, in its large outlines true, but) mostly invented story. It wasn’t like her. Generally she bursts the bubble of my stories if I get carried aloft by my own exhalations and inflations. (She plays the Hugh to my David, in that way.)
It’s my eighth anniversary today–Happy Anniversary, Rebecca, I love you–and it occurs to me that the cause of Rebecca’s corroboration of my story was her collaboration in it. This is how family stories–notorious for their mythical nature–emerge. If you pause, as I did, to think about your family stories, you will realize several things:
1. They contain at least as much fiction as fact.
2. Everybody knows them, can retell them, and enjoys the retelling of them, even to one another. Of course they’re always at their best with a new audience–a new boyfriend, a couple over for dinner, a traveler met in a foreign country.
3. Normally they are funny, although there are plenty of bitter ones, too. Either way, one is emotionally invested in the story. They are not reportage.
4. They define family roles–that is, we appear as set characters in the stories, and everyone is a slight caricature of herself or himself (“…like Dad always does…”, etc.).
5. Like all great oral histories, they either improve with time, or vanish from the repertoire.
We could go on. You get the point. As Rebecca and I have become a family, what began with me telling improbable stories to her has transformed, happily, into us telling improbable stories to other people, with our fifteen-year-old chiming in (though she’s happy to burst some bubbles, too–in fact, that can become part of the narrative, one of the punchlines). As they age, our five-year-old and three-year-old will doubtless get in on the game. All of this is about value; very little of it is about fact.
That might trouble some people: Don’t we want to live our lives in the world of facts? Aren’t we going to wind up with bloody noses, empty bank accounts, car crashes, no power and a desert planet if we don’t pay awfully close attention to the truth, to the facts of the matter? Well, yes, the truth counts, and if we neglect the facts entirely we will step in front of all different kinds of heavy oncoming chrome-grilled semis and won’t have much cause to complain when we are flattened to the blacktop. But the TRUTH of the matter, if you want to hear it, is that we only live about 10% of our lives in the world of facts, on the high side; the other 90% is in the world of values.
Why do you wear blue jeans instead of khakis? Why do read Flaubert rather than Steven King? Why did you go to Columbia instead of CUNY? Why do you live in Kansas City rather than Boston? Not fact after fact after fact, but choice after choice after choice, expressing value after value after value. It’s a point Sartre made most forcefully: given a certain set of factual constraints, you made your life (we don’t want to overdo this: many, many people need lots of help with bare facts like food and shelter and disease) on the basis of what you value. And what are values? Can you point to them? Prove them? Establish them as “facts”? (There is no Nobel Prize for Philosophy, but if you could find the “true values,” the so-called “factual” ones, they’d find a way to give you a Nobel, I promise. Smart people have been trying to do this for at least five thousand years, and no one’s managed yet.)
No, values are fictional things–which does not mean they are any less important than factual things, in fact it might turn out to be just the opposite, as with Shakespeare and the reality TV show–which we create and embrace as we live. Our first context for understanding value is the family (of whatever kind of family that may be); one way we do it in families is by telling stories. By describing our own history in the terms of our collective recollection and imagination, and highlighting–even, inventing–those parts that illustrate or capture what matters most to us: what we find funniest, most resonant, most noteworthy, most fitting, or most exceptional. When your spouse or your child says, “No, you’re not telling it right,” they don’t mean you’re getting the facts wrong. They mean you are placing emphasis in the wrong place, your delivery is off, you aren’t capturing what matters most: You aren’t communicating what we value in the story, why we love the story, why it’s one of the stories we always tell.
So now I will watch to see when Rebecca is agreeing with the way I’m telling the story, and to see how I respond to the way she tells it. I’m especially eager to hear how our three daughters tell their stories about all of us. The made-up parts, I’m betting, will be the best parts.
Photo by Dyanna
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