Something Imagined, Not Recalled: Staying True and Lending Truth to Someone’s Life

People who read the New York Times are probably familiar with the “Anatomy of a Scene” pieces, in which a film director describes a particular scene from a film they’ve made. Parts of the scene are shown as the narrative proceeds. The filmmaker/director often touches on what they were trying to achieve in the scene, what the directorial and acting challenges may have been, and how those were addressed. Sometimes they talk about what worked and what didn’t. To me what makes these pieces interesting is that we, the audience, get a glimpse into the artist’s viewpoint as they share their behind-the-scenes work, their objectives, and how they managed all the elements that had to come together to make it work.  In thinking about sharing some of my own behind-the-scenes work from a writer’s perspective, it occurred to me that I might also share some elements of how a scene, chapter, or theme in my book evolved.

One of the biggest challenges I faced in writing Purveyors of Light and Shadow: Two Artists Search for Meaning arose when, a few years into the project, the person whose life I was writing about developed some serious illnesses that exacerbated some pre-existing memory problems. As a result, she became less able to recount events with the kind of accuracy that a memoir requires. When I found that I had to fill in details that were for one reason or another obscured, my goal remained: staying true to what I knew about the person whose story I was telling. To complicate matters further, I believe a lack of access to objective facts may at times have resulted from an altered perspective around the reconstruction of traumatic experiences as well as from memory loss. But the effect was the same, and my approach, despite the challenges at hand, was too.

Out of necessity, I found myself exploring the blurring of lines between memory and storytelling, which ultimately became one of the unintended themes of the book. This process also forced me to bring into focus my own struggle to find creative ways of reconstructing events that were important to the story that I was telling:

….as we delved into Lucy’s childhood and edged our way into narrower corridors of her past, we entered spaces that challenged my sense of what the past is. Our exploration inspired questions about what happens during the process of reconstructing long unexamined, overlooked, or even over-rehearsed memories. I began to wonder about the trustworthiness of the inner narrative that shapes and colors the stories we tell ourselves, the way we perceive the unfolding of our life’s events as our lives skein out and our capacities expand or contract. I began to consider the textures our experiences take on in the act of sharing them, perhaps for the first time, long after they’ve rested undisturbed under a protective cover of years and layers of emotional sediment.  

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As I began to ask questions about how we see and construct ourselves through the sometimes-distorted lens of difficult experiences and our responses to them, I found myself starting to see my role in the storytelling differently. That’s how my concept of storytelling began to change.

Once I’d opened Lucy’s history up to scrutiny, its gaps and disparities— at first just obstacles to clear away—would eventually push me toward a necessary awakening to the lessons of not telling. While our conversations deepened, I remained a long way from understanding how I would navigate the interspace…. I had yet to see my own way toward understanding what this story was really about and how it needed to be told. I hadn’t begun to explore what my role in it would actually be.

In my effort to grapple with the complexity of what I was trying to do, I found that I had to explicitly bring my learning process into the narrative.

Crucially, I had to remain true to Lucy’s sense of self and to her process, but I also had to understand my own process—as it was evolving—in order to address the problems that came up when some of the connective tissue was missing or edges didn’t fit neatly together.

Nearly four years into the project, important threads were in place, and I had shaped the emotional substance of Lucy’s formative years. But despite all the digging we had done together I still hadn’t managed to work out a reliable timeline for transformative events unfolding later in her life. This should have been the easy part. What was chasing darkness if not blindly feeling one’s way along, perhaps coming up with a few fragments, and finding oneself standing there disoriented, squinting in the glare above ground?

I was coming to see that I had pushed Lucy as far I could. Watching her strength and mental acuity slip away through a series of debilitating and painful illnesses and continue to falter as her conditions became chronic, I had learned to hold back on requests, even small ones, when she seemed too frail or exhausted for even her most heroic effort to pay off. I was careful to avoid the slightest hint of a suggestion that would send her on an undeterrable mission of cooperation, refusing to acknowledge her diminished capacity, doggedly acquiescing to another interview, working through fatigue, worsening drug effects, and unrelenting pain to tackle a few more questions. Yet no amount of effort improved her diminishing access to the details I needed to close the gaps and move the story forward. I had seen it often enough to recognize the ways Lucy’s historically spotty memory, which had become increasingly unreliable over the past two years, worked against her otherwise unchecked willingness to give everything she had to the process. I had also bumped up against something potentially unconscious, something that felt from my vantage point almost like resistance, though I wasn’t prepared to call it that.

Not that I would be surprised to find pockets of shadow hugging the facts of Lucy’s trauma. But I wasn’t prepared for her, consciously or not, to leave it all in my hands or to feel so alone in prospecting for something precious and steadfast buried in her stubbornly thin recollections. How would I make Lucy’s story whole if I failed to pin down its slipperier pieces, the parts—yes, I had to remember it was the parts and not the partner— that eluded me, eluded us. What if I simply couldn’t make it happen? What if, in the end, I couldn’t conjure the magic my friend trusted me to make? What if Lucy’s health continued to decline and she didn’t even live to see the resolution of her own story? Could I live with either of those endings?

The story I had set out to write went something like this: An artist struggles to overcome illness, adversity, and betrayal… finds redemption in examining relationship to family, to past choices, and to self as she sees it now… An over-reliance on will and some real courage allow a misguided search for approval to eventually lead to a creative path and the possibility of healing.

But the task that now presented itself was to fashion another narrative. Not only was I exploring the process of reconstructing self, but I was witnessing it in real time, perhaps even influencing its direction.

The story I was trying to tell now wasn’t going to materialize from a collection of facts pulled into a tidy narrative of what happened when. The negative space that had settled in, along with Lucy’s deteriorating health and the flattening effects of the drugs that almost but never entirely controlled her pain, left me afraid of finding that space empty, or perhaps just failing to see what was in it. I was beginning to realize, in a tangled, anxious process, that this story would require me to work from a different system of navigation, one in which I would have to construct the waypoints rather than locate them on a conscientiously studied map. Only by entering my own unsettled space, where I could just as easily become lost or disappear, would I have any hope of understanding the part I played in this story.  

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The story, it turned out, would eventually be as much about understanding my role in the narrative—and my discomfort with that—as it was about knitting together the uneven edges of Lucy’s narrative. This proved to be the greatest and most difficult leap for me, one that I actively resisted until, after much prodding from my editor, I finally began to see that I had to accept the idea of sharing my struggle in order to make the story work. Staying with that struggle and not running away from it allowed me to understand the deeper truths of the story I was trying to tell. But first I had to step out of my own way in order to free myself to live—and write—in the uncomfortable gaps. Where I had once been pre-occupied with the impulse to fill them, coming to terms with the impossibility of doing so taught me to accept them. Giving narrative space to my learning process created more room for me to explore and shape the more fragmented parts of Lucy’s story. In this way our stories merged and became the dual memoir neither of us had imagined when Lucy initially asked me to write about her life and her art.

2 thoughts on “Something Imagined, Not Recalled: Staying True and Lending Truth to Someone’s Life”

  1. This is a lovely explanation of your process. I particularly love its illustration in the ancient piece of pottery that has been put back together, although the pot seems to have had all its pieces in tact. Your job was harder.

    1. Thank you for your comment, Jeane. I love that piece, too, partly because it is so expressive in its simplicity, and partly because of the way it was “completed” by those who collected and painstakingly arranged the pieces that remained. That is why it serves as such a powerful metaphor for my experience writing parts of this book. Thank you for acknowledging the challenges involved!

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