I’m a fastidious fact checker. When writing creative nonfiction I will confirm the day of the week an event happened, what the weather was like, the phase of the moon, and the number one song on the radio. These small verifiable truths help create a clearer picture. Add up to a richer, fuller, more convincing story.
For CNF writers, however, stories emerge from a deep, mysterious place where “truth” can’t be verified—our memories.
Memoirist Mary Karr has been known to demonstrate just how unreliable memory can be with a staged fight in her classroom. Her students are asked to write what they recall; inevitably, their stories contradict each other.
“They all project whatever is going on with them,” Karr says.
“Projecting” was one of my greatest fears when I set out to write about my friend Gord, who died when we were in high school.
I worried that I might pull too hard on the threads of our story, only able to understand it from my limited a point of view. I was prepared to unravel some suppressed emotions in the telling, but also worried without his perspective I was doomed to warp the truth.
Still, I felt compelled to write. To tell the story as truthfully as I could, verifying facts. Corroborating my memories with others.
Here are the memories from which my story, “Shame Shame,” emerged.
- When we were 16, Gord and I became friends; it was a close but undefined friendship
- I wanted to be his girlfriend; he didn’t ask
- In the first few months of grade 11, we were bullied by a couple of girls. They vocalized, repeatedly, my deepest fears: that I didn’t deserve Gord, wasn’t pretty enough for a boy who was such a catch. They flirted with him aggressively as they shamed him for hanging out with me.
- Gord died before we were able to tell each other, clearly, what we meant to each other
Here’s the emotional truth I had to work with as I wrote: ours was an unrequited love story. There was no evidence to the contrary.
If you’ve ever tried to write about someone who has died, you understand how much higher the stakes are. Getting it right, telling the truth, doing the story justice becomes a deep concern; an enormous responsibility.
I took great pains to “re-collect” the details to help me better “recollect” the story.
In 1991, the year I left home, the red cardboard box where I kept photos of Gord, his obituary, and other mementos was lost. As I set out to write about him in 2014 I sought out the facts, retrieving articles about his car accident at the library and local newspaper archives. At the same time, I tried to trigger old memories. I browsed our high school yearbooks. Circled the old neighbourhood, past our childhood homes. Strolled the hallways of our school.
Then some Law of Attraction-type synchronicity occurred. I ran into mutual friends in the most unexpected places—my kids’ school, the local swimming pool. They all recalled Gord fondly, were happy to remember with me. I thought seeing some photos would help loosen more memories, bring me closer to him, but no one seemed to have any.
I turned to music—songs from the late 80s that brought me right back to the summer before Gord died—to help me immerse myself more deeply in that time. As I wrote I began to remember him more clearly. Sometimes, when I got something right, I felt a tingle—yes! That’s exactly what he said, how he looked, the way it was.
I sent Gord’s sister a letter, unsure she’d remember me. I’d only met her once or twice, in the days following his death.
“I remember you, Nicole,” the email read. “I’d like to talk to you. I know you were special to him, too.”
At the coffee shop, Gord’s sister asks, “Do I still look like him?”
She does. She’s pretty, with kind brown eyes, dark curly hair and a gentle manner, so familiar. The resemblance puts me at ease right away.
“I loved your brother as much as a 16-year-old girl can love a boy,” I admit early in the conversation, surprised by my own candour.
“He cared about you, too. He talked about you all the time. You were the only girl he talked about.”
This is not the story. I resist. No, no, no.
“He didn’t feel the same way about me,” I insist, compelled to correct this dangerous misconception.
“Oh God, you didn’t understand him!” she looks me straight in the eyes for a moment, then laughs. “He was so shy, he could never tell you.”
I ask if she knew how close our houses were to each other. Gord and I could have met up in two minutes but instead, spent hours tying up the phone.
“I remember that!” she nods and smiles. “I asked him about you and I remember him pointing to your house and saying, That’s where she lives.”
For some reason it’s this memory—the gesture, the words—combined with the certainty she knew her brother’s heart that cause a shift inside me. A cumulative effect.
“I didn’t know he knew where I lived,” I say.
I wasn’t there, can’t confirm the accuracy of someone else’s memories. Still, the stories Gord’s sister shares with me—insights only a sibling would have—feel like meaningful clues.
The story is shifting. I try to stay with it.
His reciprocal feelings for me: possibly the truth.
I—the woman, the writer—had to look at the entire story all over again. To try to remember anything I’d forgotten, any clues that were essential to the truth of our story.
Then, a memory re-emerged.
Gord handing me his school picture. He’d written Love, Gord in his neat, curvy script on the back. Looked down, away, grinning shyly at my locker as he gave it to me.
I watch the entire story unfold like a silent film. The way we interact with each other; the harmony I felt in his presence.
I relieve him of the need to tell me in words how he feels. Instead, read the non-verbal cues that were there.
This look he always gave me—shy, flirty, Hey babe.
A handful of flowers, grass, tossed my way.
He always held the door open for me.
Finally, I see it.
What does a writer do with information that changes the story she’s been telling herself for more than two decades?
It was a strange personal crisis—difficult to wrangle with yet at the same time, healing.
To manage a wave of intense delayed grief I followed Deborah Morris Coryell’s advice in her wonderful book, Good Grief: Healing Through the Shadow of Loss.
I decided I would also stay open to the story I thought I knew.
Let myself be humbled by the fact I may have gotten everything wrong.
I revised the ending of “Shame Shame.”
In the final scene one of the bullies pushes me into a wall—one last shove.
The revised ending includes an imagined kiss I never would have allowed myself to write if there wasn’t a remote chance my feelings for Gord were reciprocated.
I think it’s a much better ending.
A few months after I wrote “Shame Shame” my friend invited me to look through some old high school memorabilia her mom dug out of her basement.
“I think you’re going to like this,” she said, handing me a folded up note I’d written on October 24, 1989.
He said so many sweet things. He said he loves brown hair and blue eyes, like mine. He asked me for my picture and my phone number again and told me he wanted me to work with him so we could spend more time together.
My heart raced a bit as I began to remember, in fragments, that long forgotten phone call.
“I feel flirted with across time.” I blushed as I read through to the end of the note.
Thought about selective memory. The role it plays for survivors of trauma and loss.
Maybe we can never retrieve the true story, in all its messy, complex glory, because we need our memories to uphold the narrative we tell ourselves about our lives.
I understand now it was less painful by degrees to remember the story the way I did—as though the bullies were right—than the alternative.
Not of a lack of mutual affection, but missed timing. Time simply running out.
Some of my early poems about Gord now feel inaccurate, out of date. They were written before I met with his sister or read the miraculously retrieved note from 1989.
Still, I won’t rewrite them. They belong in the chapbook alongside all the other writing I produced. They tell the truth. They are my honest work.
Stay open is excellent advice for writers who are also truth tellers.
So are these wise words of fiction writer Sarah Selecky that make our purpose as writers seem so simple:
Tell the truth in your story, right now.
Recommended reading on truth, memory, and memoir:
Lee Gutkind, You Can’t Make This Stuff Up: The Complete Guide to Writing Creative Nonfiction
Mary Karr, The Art of Memoir
Lauren Slater, Lying: A Metaphorical Memoir