What is truth?
When I as an ED volunteer in college, I once had a conversation with a patient about the best place to buy a burrito in town. The words were utterly unremarkable:
“What do you think about Chipolte?”
“Not enough flavor.”
“Really? I’m a huge fan.”
“I don’t mind their fajitas, but the rest…”
“I get the same thing every time so I guess I couldn’t compare.”
Just boring small talk in the middle of the night in a crowded ER. The speech was totally hollow, and the back-and-forth was repetitive. These words are reported accurately, yet are they true?
The true conversation is separate from the mundanity of the 3-hour conversation about Mexican food. The truth is that he was shackled to the bed on a suicide watch, and I was the watchman. The conversation was never about burritos, it was about life and happiness and purpose but chained to the notion of accuracy over the truth that could never be conveyed in writing. My philosophy when telling stories about my experiences is to bend the details to fit the deeper narrative, and it is to this deeper narrative that I hold myself to a high degree of precision.
In other words, I might say that I entered the room awkwardly (it was not awkward, I had entered hundreds of rooms before) and sat with him in silence, exchanging a few aimless words as the time wound on 1, 2 and finally 3 hours beyond the end of my shift. We said nothing of consequence (we talked nearly the whole 3 hours), yet with our eyes, we discussed the nature of his visit and all the heavy details beyond (Neither I nor he, can read eyes—but we can understand intentions). He had been brought in by a friend after attempting suicide (the friend was also there most of the time, but that detail doesn’t affect the narrative), and I tried, with my presence, to show him that I was glad that he had not succeeded. I have no idea if he understood what I was trying to say (I didn’t say anything directly—I treated him as a person).
Over my literate years, I’ve been influenced by many writers. I’ve adopted bits and pieces of each of their styles and folded it, largely subconsciously, into my own prose. Most aspects of my writing I couldn’t possibly trace back to a single source, but for one area I can actually put a finger on it, and that is how to tell a true war story. In The Things They Carried, Tim O’Brien writes about his experience in Vietnam and tells the story of a friend who stepped on a landmine in a shady area with some light poking through the trees. But he insists this is not true and retells and retells this story, refolding the facts and intertwining aspects of other stories until you get a sense of what this event really means. Because his friend didn’t die to a landmine, when O’Brien looked away, he ascended into a pillar of light. Although the facts would not hold up to scrutiny, I would argue that this story is more true, and in my writing, I always strive to be true to the emotional complexity of a situation, because that is ultimately what is most important.