Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Many voices, one story

Not long ago, a friend recounted an event that happened while he was in law school. One morning during class, a professor left his laptop in its case by the open door to the classroom. Suddenly in the middle of class, someone darted from the hall through the doorway, grabbed the laptop, and ran off.

The professor asked each student to write down what had just transpired, and the students realized soon enough that what had looked like a random happening was actually staged by the professor to introduce a lesson on eyewitness reports – a lesson whose significance became obvious once the students discovered how many different narratives existed within that one class where they all witnessed the same event.

I thought about this story over the weekend as I interviewed more than a dozen members of one extended family for a memoir project. The subject of the memoir is a grandfather in his eighties; each child and each grandchild, most of whom are now adults themselves, was asked to tell me stories and anecdotes about their grandfather. The interviews were private, so no family member knew what any other one had said.

Accuracy of eyewitness accounts is important to attorneys, of course. In the case of my friend’s law class, the point was how unreliable and how widely varying a description of a happening can be. Journalists take a different approach to this: rather than exploring the varying viewpoints, they tend to keep interviewing witnesses until a consistent picture begins to emerge.

But I was following the model of neither attorney nor journalist when I did these interviews over the weekend. I welcomed differences in perspective. Many of the children’s and the grandchildren’s stories overlapped or coincided, but each time I heard the same event described, the details were different. One child remembered the grandfather taking them out for ice cream after a long day’s work; another recounted that the highlight of that excursion was a ride at a go-cart track. One sibling, describing the walk to a neighborhood candy store fifty years ago, said it was a long walk up a big hill; a younger sibling remembered it as an easy little foray, though he later admitted that as the youngest, he was usually pushed in a stroller and might not have appreciated just how steep the hill actually was.

In law or reporting, these kinds of variations are wrinkles that require ironing out, but in memoir writing, they add texture and intrigue. This was the first time I’d taken a multi-generational approach to writing a memoir; normally I focus on just one person, but this family came up with the idea of having all of them contribute their own anecdotes and recollections, and as my weekend of interviewing progressed, I realized what a great idea it actually was.

On the one hand, it generated a lot of stories. With more than a dozen different individuals recalling the same person, many different memories were excavated and many tales told. But just as much fun was hearing one or two of the same favorite stories, told over and over again, in different voices and with different interpretations. 

Accuracy matters in some fields, but in memoir writing, perspective is more important. The multi-faceted perspectives offered by one large family reflecting on their grandfather – his life, his personality, the lessons he imparted – made his story much richer than a single narrative ever could have done.

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