When I was considering this post, I recalled an article with the same title that I had clipped many years ago. The article, from the March 2015 issue of Parabola, was a conversation between writer P.L. Travers (author of Mary Poppins) and Laurens van der Post, who, from the 1940s through 1980s, was known as a best-selling author, environmentalist, and advisor to heads of state (he was a close friend of Prince Charles and Margaret Thatcher). After his death in 1996, his reputation was questioned when some biographers suggested he might have embellished (others say “made up”) much of his own story.
In the article, P.L. Travers asked van der Post, “Where do the stories go?” He responded not by answering the question directly, but by reinforcing our mission as personal historians, saying that we “can’t ask what we can do to get them back but know only that it has to be done.”
The Truth Be Told
For van der Post, the real truth may still be undiscovered, but it made me wonder, where is the truth in our stories? When do we move our narratives from complete fiction to nonfiction to creative nonfiction?
Our mission is the act of capturing what we assume are true stories. One baseline and source of story is others’ memories that, as neuroscientist Daniela Schiller suggests, are inherently fallible. She writes: “The process of recalling a memory actually changes it. Each time we retrieve a memory it undergoes a storage process, that means the memory is in an unstable state, rewritten and remodeled every time it is retrieved.”
Other situations ask us to access memories in those living with memory-robbing diseases. We all experience clients who present challenges in our third-party attempt to awaken, frame, and fact check their past. A potential client once told me that capturing the story of her sister would be most difficult because she no longer knows what is true and what isn’t. Working with elderly clients, I travel along a continuum that I call: “From Memories Lost to Memory Filled.” Sometimes our writing expertise is called into play as we wordsmith to embellish for historical significance, accuracy, and readability, possibly creating ‘new truths.’
Experienced personal historians have spent years developing their craft, and they realize that as we listen and capture story in all its forms, we layer our narrator’s story with our own understanding, our view, our time and place.
Even when we transcribe verbatim, our own tone and texture can add a layer of perspective in the final product. Through no deliberate intention, we may either intensify or diminish the lessons learned or the stories told.
Think of words used by the narrator that may be foreign to the story writer; terminology that is long gone; cultural phrases, values, and cultural viewpoints that may have changed. Take into account how the world lived by the storyteller, a world of dust storms, world wars, global depressions, is different from the experience of the chronicler.
Before we can answer the question “where will the stories go?” we need to acknowledge that stories journey through many people and places before they settle in, if they ever do. The act of capturing a story is not static. Stories move through us in time. Within the interactive process of capturing stories both parties own it and then pass it on. Stories flow like a river, and as a recent client described his fishing expeditions, we “catch and release” the stories told to us.
My favorite example of reaching back to bring history forward is portrayed in Steven Spielberg’s 1997 film Amistad, based on the 1839 true story of the successful mutiny by 53 illegally purchased African slaves being transported from Cuba to the U.S. Former president John Quincy Adams argued on behalf of the slaves before the U.S. Supreme Court, eventually determining the Africans to be free men. In the movie, Cinque, the leader of the slave group, assures Adams that they won’t be facing the court alone. Adams agrees, saying they have right on their side, but Cinque explains what he means: “I meant my ancestors. I will call into the past, far back to the beginning of time, and beg them to come and help me at the judgment. I will reach back and draw them into me. And they must come, for at this moment, I am the whole reason they have existed at all.”
Yes. At this moment, we are the reason our ancestors existed.
A Future Yet Unknown
Many of us hear that today’s children are not interested in stories of their ancestors. My response is always “Give them time, but be ready when they are.” Like an internal clock, come mid-40s or early 50s, once other life demands have settled, for many, the need to explore their own past takes root.
P.L. Travers suggests that our offspring don’t see the value of story, “having become disconnected to its value [like their disconnect to the earth]. Lacking the extended family, separated from the tribe, and therefore from the stories, what [do] they have to lean upon. Already the stories are becoming unavailable to those who need them most.”
There is the key. It is our job to make the stories available.
Coming up in part two of this post, I will look at more specific answers to the question of “where the stories go” as they act as lifelines to a future when we will be the ancestors.