The Difference Between Possessing and Publishing a Story

June 20, 2018 § 26 Comments


me@less2 8.30.26 AM

Author (as child) on her grandfather’s beach

by Jan Priddy

I was afraid of my grandfather when I was little. He had suffered a series of debilitating strokes beginning the year I was born. By the time I knew him one hand was held up and curled inward and his speech was unclear.

My mother hated her father, so it was easy to believe the bad things she said about him when I was a child.

My grandmother was one reason I was supposed to distrust my grandfather. She had an abortion because they had agreed not to have children when they married. The second time she became pregnant, she ignored her promise and kept the baby. She kept the next pregnancy too. That was my mother. My mother told me this, but she would not have liked me telling the world.

Do I have a right to tell this story? Is it mine to tell? Just because I am a writer? Because I am family? I was once told about the affair of a friend’s husband. I repeated that story. It was true, after all, but it got back to the wife and was embarrassing and painful for everyone. These are not my stories. They happened long ago to other people, to people I love.

My mother is dead, my aunt, and my grandparents. All of the generations before and contemporary to them are now gone. No cousins are alive. I tell that story about my grandmother’s abortion now, but I never told it while my mother was alive. My mother never told me until her own mother was gone.

#

Mostly she kept silent, but there were snippets of memory my mother would tell over and over. My grandfather had an affair, she said, maybe with the piano teacher. He bored his daughters by insisting they listen to him sing opera. He made them visit his home during holidays after their parents divorced. He was selfish and mean.

Eventually, I knit together stories she told with new information and what I could find in history. Yes, my grandmother threw out her husband, likely for infidelity. He agreed to her terms for their divorce (she got the paid-for house and everything in it but refused alimony). Did he pay child support or was my grandmother able to support herself, her two children, and a large house with her office job? In the Great Depression? There is no one who can tell me.

What I do know is that my grandfather repeatedly attempted to reconcile with his former wife. He saw his daughters frequently and tried to interest them in his own enthusiasms, including opera. He lived alone for many years and never in his life said a word against my grandmother. He attended his daughters’ weddings hundreds of miles away. He made an effort to keep in touch. Eventually, my grandmother remarried—to a man who insisted she marry him or he would not see her anymore. It was only after that, my grandfather remarried another strong-willed and intelligent woman. He never knew of his younger daughter’s animus.

My mother’s stories made my grandfather a villain. Her stories were true to her. She never lied. Her stories were factual.

Were they accurate? Were they fair?

#

I have always respected Mary Karr for giving her first memoir to family members to read before it was published. Since hers is the story of a traumatic childhood, her sister and mother have prominent roles. She acknowledges in the first pages of Liars’ Club that their versions of events are different from hers. Mary McCarthy also acknowledged, in her memoir, that she might have things wrong.

Telling the story of another person opens doors to distortion. When we have only second-hand information, it is more challenging still. We speculate about motivation while missing key elements that bent behavior in what otherwise appears irrational or unkind or a little too good to be true. We miss small acts of kindness altogether. Small acts of cruelty.

We create of our experiences a story we understand, one that feels like truth to us, and one we are willing to hear. A story that justifies our resentment and anger or our love and remorse. We want to be the hero of our own tale. Thus we tilt our view of events and reveal just what places our version in its best light. We are not always aware of our errors. Even so, a reader may find more truth than was intended.

This is inevitable, and while a memoir must feel authoritative, I do not trust authors who seem too certain, too eager to blame. I have argued continuously with some memoirs, identifying what might be self-serving bias in the telling.

The stories we tell have enormous power to teach others about our mistakes and our manner of clawing our way back to life. It would be hubris to assume that we may easily tell stories about other, especially second-hand stories, accurately and fairly, just because we can.

Am I allowed to tell everything I know, merely because I want to? I inspect my motivations, the impact of my story on others, the potential for good or harm. Whom do I serve by telling, other than myself?

#

Two poets I know will read but never publish particular poems out of respect for the feelings of family members who would be hurt by their words. There are stories about loved ones I choose not share. Some stories are wounding, and too many of us already bleed.

When I kissed my grandfather’s cheek, I remember his white whiskers were scratchy on my face.

My grandfather did not harm me when I was a little girl. I am sorry I never lingered near his chair and rarely had patience as he struggled to get words out clearly. I was his only granddaughter and know enough of his story to understand he was not a monster, but a complicated and difficult man.

My mother could never forgive her father, but I can forgive them both.
___

Jan Priddy’s work is forthcoming in Brevity magazine and Liminal Stories. She has BFAs in studio arts, and an MFA in fiction from Pacific University. She lives in her grandfather’s house and walks the beach each day. 

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§ 26 Responses to The Difference Between Possessing and Publishing a Story

  • My husband and I pick up trash along the shore, and in some magical-superstitious way, I believe removing plastic pays for my pleasure on our daily walks.

  • philipparees says:

    I am struggling through a memoir of very vivid portraits, entirely of those now dead so immediate hurt feelings are not so much an issue BUT your question about how ‘true’ is the ‘true for you’? raises relevant points.

    If one is to be ‘true to oneself’ then a story’s validity really rests on how the ‘how was it for you?’and that (however inaccurate objectively- or through other’s eyes) must be the reasons for telling it.

    Which is why I m glad I waited until close to death’s door myself. It’s now a race against the grim reaper, and I can’t care about him!

  • This is a complex issue in so many lives. For me, understanding my story didn’t come about until I had the courage and vocabulary to describe it. These were my terms, the ones I used to research the type of abuse I underwent. However, as I learned more about this trauma, I saw my parents as victims as well. The story grew. We are all in the world together, villains and saints, family and friends. It’s a bumpy road, but eventually we get to where we need to be.

  • txfen says:

    Beautifully told. It is difficult to piece the past together when those who might have helped us understand chose not to speak and are gone when we finally realize there are secrets we deserved to know.

  • Marlene Bumgarner says:

    Sitting in my designated writing corner, iPad poised to accept my prose, I delayed a few moments to read your post. So glad I did. This memoir has been waiting to be written for nearly 40 years, but I couldn’t write it until I fully understand which stories were mine to tell and which only mine to interpret. Thanks for helping me to understand the difference.

    • Thank you for addressing the possession of stories. I think there are also stories that need time and distance and a willingness to acknowledge culpability and bias. My mother was a sweet and generous woman about most things, but her parents’ divorce remained an open wound throughout her life. Perhaps in writing a memoir she might have found some ease. I like to think so.

  • barbaragoss says:

    How well can we really know another person, especially a person we have seen just a few times when we were very young? Facts about grandparents, great grandparents and other ancestors, must go through many filters before they reach the later generations. Reputations are built upon flimsy evidence and family stories edited and embellished as years go by. I hope my grandkids think of me kindly. Enjoyed your post!

  • aklotz2014 says:

    “We create of our experiences a story we understand, one that feels like truth to us, and one we are willing to hear.” Yes. Thank you for this–luminous.

  • Lani says:

    Stories shape us and yes, we do hear one side, but that’s okay, too. Sometimes we can’t know the full story. I’m finishing up another memoir (but this one is about my family) so I understand the struggle and concern.

    But at this point, I hope readers understand the complexity of memoir, and that you are telling your story through your unique lens.

  • jillprouty7 says:

    Great post. I had always heard scary stories of my paternal grandfather who died when I was a toddler. I have no memory of him. He had a wicked temper I was always told. Emotionally and physically abusive, exacerbated by alcohol. Then the night my own father died, I asked him: What was your father really like, besides the temper? What was good about him? His answer: He loved his grandchildren.

    • Thank you for this. We are not simple. There are enough countering events to provide two contradictory stories of most anyone’s life. Much of the balancing information I have about my grandfather came from my mother near the end of her life when she was less adept at avoiding my questions. While I also have my grandfather’s letters, I have read only one where he wrote lovingly of my mother’s kindness and generous heart. It was enough. I do not need to unwind everyone’s secrets and private moments to deal with my own.

  • […] via The Difference Between Possessing and Publishing a Story […]

  • mirtai4 says:

    There are always 2 sides to the story; yours and the other guys. It doesn’t mean the other person is wrong, it just means they have a different perspective on how things happened and some events may not be as important to the other person as they are to you.

  • may also guys like my site because am gonna write my embarrasing story of my life

  • caralembo says:

    I wish my Mom was alive to read this Blog….God Bless! wonderful essay!

    • It is a conversation I tried very hard to have with my mother before she died. She would not/could not hear me. I loved her very much, miss her terribly, but she never recovered from her parent divorce, only recognized how hurt she had been when she was in her 70s. The sorrows we carry . . .

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