Childhood wonder is an amazing thing. A child’s world is a world of contradictions, but also simplicities. They ask why, they expect an answer, and then, usually, they go away satisfied until the next question occurs. They don’t doubt themselves, judge themselves, or call themselves “stupid” for asking an obvious question because nothing is obvious. In their world around every corner lays a mystery.
My sister (2 at the time) asked me why I had drawn on myself after showing her my new tattoo.
Imagine a friend or peer asking me that! In the handful of tattoos I’ve gotten, the biggest reaction extends to “cool.”
But, my baby sister, she wanted to know why.
I had forgotten about this conversation that took place almost two years ago until today when a friend and I were talking about social media and how we exist in a world entirely made of pixels. We work hard to create personas (some of us genuine, some of us not) and then we filter them, crop them, find a few words that best illuminates them and hit “post.” I’m not judging, because my days are made-up of those squares and likewise those squares make-up my days. I promote my writing, interact with other sober people, purchase things, like things, and learn things. I’m not ashamed of who I am on the internet, but today’s conversation left me thinking if I’m guilty of often slightly altering the truth.
Augusten Burroughs’ discusses the truth and lying in This Is How. The words that caught my eye are these:
“The truth is humbling, terrifying, and often exhilarating. It blows the door off the hinges and fills the world with fresh air.”
I like what he has to say because:
A) It made me think maybe there’s nothing wrong with me and there never has been
B) I lie a handful of times a day just “because.”
Just because I answer “I’m good” when met with “How are you?” Just because I nod along when I’m really thinking inside “how could you!?” And obviously, as he points out, there are societal norms that dictate how we react when in the presence of other people, coworkers vs. dear friends etc. But when your work is telling the truth or as close as you can get, (as I’ve made mine by being a nonfiction creative writer), I think the line blurs. It’s hard to tell a half truth when you’re writing factual information, but after having written numerous times about the same thing my mind often plays tricks on me. Is that what actually happened or is that how I wrote about it last time? Each time I write something down I distance myself from the Truth (with a capital T even more).
Maybe, that’s a good thing.
After writing about my rape for 5 years, I’ve found a certain peace with the damage– the trauma has become a badge of honor, a teacher, and oftentimes a friend. My trauma has taught me more about living in this world than a lot of the good things in my life. I value both, but I was shaped into an adult when I lost the last remnant of my childhood. There is both power and sadness in that.
Take an exercise I once did in a writing workshop: write three truths and then tell those truths as Truths.
What actually happened? Do you actually know you sat in this chair in this room in this building? Or are you stringing together multiple things, working them into the structure, attempting to (re)create the story of your life?
I don’t intentionally lie, of course. I wouldn’t, and plus, I’m terrible at it, but fibs add up to something, as does time. Retellings become mini-exaggerations at best and folktales at worst. I write down these things to remember them, but also because my perfectionism demands some record of how things actually are before I superimposed my thoughts and feelings. Of course, the minute these things leave my head they’re in my head and I mold them by simply putting them down on paper or speaking them aloud. It occurs to me now that we can tell any story we want to and often times our story is just that. One individiual powerful story, but a story nonethless.
Why keep writing then? Trying to tell the truth if I’m always going to miss the mark or start all over again, like Sisyphus carrying the boulder up the hill? I’ve always known that I am in charge of telling my story and I like the challenge of always having to catch up with myself, of never running out of things to say because I am constantly changing, evolving, and learning. I’ve talked to many people in my life who all say they could never write let alone in a public forum. I respect that. It’s not easy. My stories have cost me family, relationships, and communities. But, I’m a fighter. Just like my relationship to alcohol, I know that there is more power in telling the truth out loud, telling better stories, than staying quiet and perpetuating someone else’s truth. If I’m not careful I can completely obliterate my life by staying quiet. I can write all over my truths, new, less painful truths, and tell a different, more acceptable tale.
One more memory: me, wearing a backpack, holding a book, and walking up the spiral staircase in my high school. I don’t remember being at the top or at the bottom. All I can see, all I can remember, is walking.
You don’t get here from there (wherever there may be) by writing half-truths. You get here by trying endlessly to string words together, to paint pictures of what really happened, to relate, and to, communicate with your reader. You broker an understanding between the two of you. I’ll tell my truth. And you, you keep asking my why.