The Third Lamb: My Quest for the Truth

April 25, 2018 § 8 Comments

z LRWBy Lisa Witz

In Reading Like A Writer, Francine Prose says to, “put every word on trial for its life.”

Writers of nonfiction have an obligation to tell the truth; this includes the facts, of course, but also the spirit of the story. Our job is to not just to make sure the craft is tightly strung, but to also make sure that the words, once threaded together like pearls on a string, hold up to the challenge of readers, especially those who are characters in or witnesses of the story. This is delicate, because everyone’s memories of a single incident differ slightly. No one remembers the same. Yet there’s some line, some place of substantial truth that can’t be questioned, and as a memoirist it’s a basic requisite for me to delineate where this line is.

I treaded near that line recently. I wrote a story called “Cutting Tails” about a typical farming chore my father asked me to do as a kid; that day my friend Julie was over at my house, so she accompanied me and shows up in the story. In a nutshell, my Dad asked us to load up some lambs in the back of the pale blue pickup and take them to the butcher. I shared the story with my writing group and they gave me all sorts of comments and constructive ideas on how to tighten the story, to craft a more polished piece. But they had no reason to question my facts, or my recollection of how the events unfolded that day. They did ask, however, about the friend, and if I am still in touch with her, and how she is doing today.

My heart started beating right there at the table in writing class. I know, as soon as someone suggested it, I knew I needed to run the story by her.  Julie is a dear friend of mine; she’s read other writing of mine before, and she’s an ardent supporter. She is one of the few people that knows a substantial history of my life. I’ve known her longer than I’ve known my husband. Her family knew my family before we knew each other. That’s how it is in small towns; and both of us got out, but the memories of our childhood haunt us equally. And this story, this small snippet that I wrote, is a place where our histories intersect.

So, I should have felt safe sending off a piece of writing to her. Yet because I put words to the page about this day, something shifted. I became author of a shared memory in our lives, and not just friend; I became a tiny bit more responsible because it was my version of the truth that took to the page. I crafted an email and attached the essay, and pressed send.

I waited, in anticipation, for her response.

A week passed before her reply. And it was gut-wrenching waiting because instead of sharing writing that was mine, this writing had her as a character in the story. I was on pins and needles worried with how she would feel about how I characterized her.  As soon as her response landed in my inbox I could tell she took time to craft her reaction. She diplomatically and poetically explained her experience, revisiting this moment, this day that affected her deeply.  She awakened me to the fact that we are still living the story, still engaged in a relationship where our actions may influence/enlighten/hurt/ one another. She is a college English professor, and she’s excellent at communicating the bare truth even when it is a difficult truth to share. Sharing this story with her was complicated, on many levels.

It turns out I had several facts wrong. I remembered us being in high school, but she correctly pointed out that we were in college, because she left my farm that day, after seeing two lambs shot to their death at the butchers, to her waitressing job where she carried steak oozing with its red, thick juice to patrons in the restaurant. She was repulsed. She also pointed out that when we drove the lambs to the butcher, as my dad asked me to do, and as happened frequently on the sheep and cattle farm where I grew up, we carried three lambs in the back of the pickup. Not two. The butcher, as Julie recalls, had room for only two so he quickly and decisively terminated the lives of those two and spared one. Julie told me that a lamb was missing from my story, one whose life was spared, for no apparent reason, and how “seemingly random” (her words) it was that it witnessed the horror and then went on to live.

Her words propelled me deeper into the story, deeper into the memory, to a place where my heart pounded not only more quickly but much more profoundly. Why did I place this story in high school, when we were in in college? Is it because I had often driven to the butchers, and the memories of going there become jumbled? Or was I remembering a more innocent girl, a younger version of myself who couldn’t be responsible for turning her friend vegetarian?

I had to put the essay aside for several weeks. Julie’s response frightened me. It made me want to write fiction because my own truth feels more far-fetched than fiction, at times, and because I started to doubt my memories. They are difficult to open and examine; they are difficult, at times, to remember.

Julie thanked me for writing about that day; “It’s all kind of strangely haunting and beautiful all at the same time.”  She went on to say, “It turned out to be one of the most defining moments of my life, and in many ways altered the entire course of my life.”

At times I feel like my memory is on trial for life. Is my version of the truth true? If it isn’t, or if it misses some facts, why did I leave them out? The eyes of the lamb who was saved, the one who drove back to the farm in the pickup truck with me, the one who witnessed the silence between Julie and I that shifted our relationship, that lamb haunts me. Why did I forget the third lamb when I wrote the original story?

Lisa Witz grew up the youngest of nine children on a sprawling cattle and sheep farm north of San Francisco. She left the small town to feed her wanderlust, living in Japan, Spain and the Pacific Northwest. She now lives near San Diego with her husband and three children, and they often visit the farm to hike the trails of her childhood. Visit for more of her writing.


§ 8 Responses to The Third Lamb: My Quest for the Truth

  • Monica Graff says:

    Thank you for sharing this. I also struggle with getting to the truth of a story and wonder if I’m remembering things as they actually happened. It’s been eye-opening for me to discover that we tell stories to ourselves sometimes without realizing we’re molding “facts” to suit ourselves in some way.

  • Joanne says:

    This is so spot on. Thank you for writing it. I’ve been questioning so much about “stories” and discovering that even when I’ve gotten them down on the page, there is more that later surfaces. When are we ever “done”? I think that’s what’s been holding up the revisions of a project I’ve been working on.

  • I have a friend who I meet back in the second grade and she, too, is in my stories. How unnerving it was to share my writings from our childhood with her but how rewarding and helpful to have her tweak my “facts” and still encourage me to write my memoir.
    Your story certainly resonates with me.

  • The spirit of the story is where I try hardest. It is an arduous process. Memory is a mischievous troll that steals ideas and moments as if they were invaders on the kingdom of sanity. And so much of my childhood was debating the truth of events in opposition to minimizing and gaslighting. Truth-telling is heart work. That one remaining lamb.

  • barbaragoss says:

    Thank you for sharing. Lovely writing. Truth is elusive and subjective and scary!

  • Your story really resonates with me, leaving me wondering: Do I ask my sister to read my memoir before I even consider sending it “out yonder”? Her assignment several years ago was to write about my own tangled relationship with our late mother, which I have done, and to tell it from my own perspective, although we share many of the same impressions. Perhaps that’s why I keep hanging onto it, not letting it see the light of day.

  • So much once again to think over as I work on my nonfiction. And your story has a haunting, elegant heart.

  • What a remarkable and eloquent case for getting the truth onto the page, for not trusting even your own memory but finding the will to test it against another’s!

    Truth and accuracy were a significant issue among writers of nonfiction in my MFA program. No one in my program advocated invention. Some argued the only absolutely verifiable facts might be included in a memoir, while others advocated for modest “perhapsing.” Your essay makes clear that seeking fact, rather than trusting entirely to memory or questionable invention, leads to greater understanding and beauty. I honor the perhapsing process I first read in these pages, but also the injunction to always label our guesswork as such. (How did I miss this essay when it was first published?)

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