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Tuesday, August 28, 2018

Telling Stories and Storytelling

Image courtesy of Roke from Wikimedia Commons
My grandmother always told me, “Now don’t you be telling no stories.”

She meant lies and other nefarious fabrications, not flights of fancy. The word “story” could mean either in her mind, and she frowned on both. Anything that wasn’t factual was suspect because non-facts had no foundation and therefore couldn’t be trusted. Stories were like gathering clouds—dangerous in their potential.

My husband would agree with her definition if not her assessment. He’s an engineer, suspicious of the frayed edge that all stories have, the place where facts start unraveling. He says that fact and truth are the same thing. He says that if he started writing equations based on my ideas of truth, planes would fall from the sky.

It’s a point.

And yet my brain can’t make sense of all the facts around me. Information overload sets in, so my brain begins editing my reality into something I can comprehend, erasing this, focusing on that. It connects my present experience to the other experiences folded and tucked in my gray matter, and by doing so, creates a chronology, a sense of past and future, effect and consequence. The human brain is wired for stories, and it programs our consciousness accordingly.

Not facts. Stories.

Memory is useful not for what it records, but for what it erases. For the vast majority of us, it is not photographic. It takes out the extraneous
however factualand leaves us with essencehowever slanted. And our recollection is slanted; it must be. No true and perfectly accurate memory exists. Certain details, by necessity, weren’t captured in the first place, and every subsequent time your consciousness touches the memory, it further alters it, even as the flawed memory is carved deeper into your brain.

Jonah Lehrer explains it more eloquently than I can in his Seed magazine article "The Neuroscience of Proust":
“Every time we remember, the neuronal structure of the memory, no matter how constant it may feel, is delicately transformed. If you prevent the memory from changing, it ceases to exist. So the purely objective memory . . . is the one memory lost to you forever.”
Criminal justice research shows how problematic this process is, revealing that even though juries value eyewitness identification as gold-standard evidence, it is actually the most fallible of testimony.

I think this is why I’ve always loved reading mysteries, why I eventually became a crime fiction writer. If my own memory was suspect, malleable, shaped by my subconscious every second of the day, then why not lean into that unreliability? Why not partner with it instead of fighting it?

And so I have. I’m hard at work crafting the seventh book in my Tai Randolph series, tentatively titled Prodigal Lies. Like me, Tai isn’t afraid of a little lie (white or otherwise). She spins them out of necessity, but also for the sheer fun of it. It’s one of the pleasures of writing her.

Sorry, Grandma.

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Tina Whittle writes the Tai Randolph mysteries for Poisoned Pen Press. The sixth book in this Atlanta-based series—Necessary Ends—is available now. Tina is a proud member of Sisters in Crime and serves as both a chapter officer and national board member. Visit her website to follow her on social media, sign up for her newsletter, or read additional scenes and short stories:


Margaret S. Hamilton said...

Some memories change for the better, and some remain the stuff of nightmares. As I write, I draw on emotions and sensory memories to create my character's story.

Karla Brandenburg said...

I've been making up stories all my life, and quite often my mother didn't appreciate it. Hopefully she understood at some point...

Grace Topping said...

Some memories I would like to erase forever. But I'm stuck with them and they have a habit of surfacing at the most inconvenient times. Perhaps if I used some of them in my writing and changed them sufficiently, they would stop bugging me.

Tina said...

I loved the movie "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind." All the hazards of both remembering and forgetting writ large. I'd like to think that writing helps us to make some sense of the hodgepodge in a healthy way, but I suspect that our imagination uses it for both good and evil. Like a toddler. Or a supervillain.

KM Rockwood said...

While I understand the need to be able to tell the difference between fact and fiction, sometimes I think reality is overrated.

Jim Jackson said...

Two points: I agree completely that what we remember are only stories we tell ourselves. Those do change over time or become rooted in our own mythology. It’s the reason people will swear to a demonstrably provable false fact. Tell a lie long enough and you believe it as truth.

Second point: When I studied psychology (my minor), gestalt theory made complete sense to me and still does to this day. Its essence is that we take all new experiences and try to make them fit within the global whole of our understanding.

So, you and I witness the same event, but we see it with different perspectives because of the whole of our understandings. Or, as the math major in me says, everything flows from our assumptions—whether we understand them or not.