Yesterday was National Writing Day. In honor of that event I decided to share an experience I had this summer, while working on my upcoming mother’s memoir, Warrior Mother.
Most everyone knows that no two people, present for the same event, are having the same experience. Witnesses to traffic accidents, or to someone committing a crime, often differ in their accounts, sometimes even providing conflicting details. In recent years, the emergence of DNA evidence has secured the release of many incarcerated persons, convicted on the evidence of eyewitness identifications. In these cases, the DNA evidence demonstrates the person convicted could not have been the offender, the eye- witnesses made a mistake.
Fiction writers can capitalize on this truth of differing perspectives by telling the story from various characters points of views. But what to do when the story is my own? When I am describing my experience of a real life event that happened in the presence of other family members? I am certain that each of them would describe the scene in their own unique ways.
I know I could tell them to write their own story, and some differences do come down to that. But in preparing my mother’s memoir for publication, I want to be as true to the reality of the situations I’m describing as possible. And I want to understand to some extent, from where these differences might spring.
I found a course at the Iowa Summer Writer’s Festival titled: The Politics of Writing About Your Own Family, which turned out to be exactly right for this exploration. The assignment was to select a scene in your manuscript, and describe it from the perspective of a person who was present, and that you imagine would see the scene differently from you. I knew exactly what scene to select and what person, though I had no idea how I would be able to accomplish this daunting task.
Hold up in my second floor sleeping/writing room over the used bookstore where I was staying, I reread the scene I had selected just before going to bed, deciding I would tackle the assignment in the morning. I awoke with a start, remembering a scene that had occurred the night before the scene that was my focus. It wasn’t that I didn’t remember the scene, I did. But it hadn’t made the cut in my selection of scenes that were needed to tell my version of the story. I immediately saw that it was critical to the perspective of the family member that I had selected, the person who I imagine saw things differently than I did.
So in writing the story from this family member’s perspective, (as I imagine he might tell it) I began with that recently remembered scene. Then placing these two accounts, side by side, I saw how different experiences of the same event develop. I’m not sure which of us is right. I suspect we both are. And realizing this has changed forever, the way I remember it.