Creative

The truth that facts forgot

How 10 short stories outshone 25 years of Dear Dairy

Words & images* © Paul Ransom

“A good story is always more dazzling than a broken piece of truth.”

– Diane Setterfield

We love to keep a record of ourselves, to cut snippets from our lives and build up our personal ‘me museums.’ By itself, raw memory is not sufficient for this purpose, mostly because we know that our powers of recall are patchy. Hence the photos, keepsakes and journals. In turn, we trust these exhibits to support organic recollection and help stave off forgetting, in addition to offering us more factual (and sometimes powerful) reminders of our life story. Strangely, this has not been my experience. Not lately anyway.

A few weeks back I was trawling through old files on a hard drive, trimming fat and freeing up space, when I came across a trove of short love stories from the mid-noughties. I remembered that my intention had been to compile them into a collection of sorts; but life intervened and the project got parked in the backlots of Windows XP, never to be re-opened. Until now.

My first instinct had been to delete the folder whole, docs unread; yet something impelled me to dive in, and what I found astonished me. It was not just that I ended up liking several of the enclosed pieces but that they had recorded – intentionally or otherwise – something fundamental about the person who authored them. Not biographical details, nor merely a mindset, but an entire psycho-emotional world.

The effect was like time travel. The 56yo from 2022 revisiting the 39-42yo of 2005-08. Better than any photo, favourite song or item of memorabilia, they had distilled a writhing mess of recently divorced being into a series of fictional vignettes. The old me was still alive, encoded in long ignored words.

  • Curious? This piece – Unnoticed – strikes me now as the most honest (and brutal) of them. Its truth is only partly about the events described. Thus, whilst much of it is ‘fiction’ something in its core is profoundly, unflatteringly true.1

The impact of this unearthing was amplified by the fact that I had forgotten and/or mis-remembered much of the fine detail they captured. Indeed, I found in them a more authentic and revealing voice than I had in any of the several thousand journal entries I had penned over a quarter century of diarising.

Here then, is the point of this piece. How is it that ten love stories dashed off in a post-marriage fog can be a truer archive than decades of exhaustive Dear Diary detail?

“Writing fiction is the act of weaving a series of lies to arrive at a greater truth.”

– Khaled Hosseini

Clearly, I am not the first writer of fiction to discover the truth in well-arranged lies. Neither am I the only lover of books, songs and cinema to have deep and life-altering moments of recognition and realisation as the audience of other artists. We are the story-telling animal. All human cultures – from tribal/nomadic to urban/technological – have crafted fiction into various forms of truth, as well as its numerous approximations. Perhaps I should have anticipated that my forgotten yarns would re-emerge to a shiver of remembered connection, but no.

This underscores two equally interesting phenomena. Firstly, forgetting is profound, a deeply necessary erasure. Secondly, my old diaries were little more than several hundred pages of self-performative bullshit.

Ideally, I would provide a link to prime examples, as I have with the stories. However, after sifting through said journals in last autumn, (again, for the first time in years), I was appalled – so much so that I consigned them forthwith to the nearest recycling bin. My disgust was almost visceral. Was that – is that- me? Holy fuck!

What struck me was how false they were. Years of breathless over-exposure, anal detail and righteous self-mythologising was translating as a painful pose, as if I were writing for heroic posterity; like some misguided long shot at posthumous fame (or ignominy). The only thing my twenty plus years of regular recording truly preserved was the stratospheric level of my own delusional self-importance.

Yep, got it. Trashed.

This is not to say that the recently disinterred stories prove or otherwise reveal a level-headed temperament or enlightened absence of ego-theatre. However, they were created for public consumption, unlike the nominally private diaries. In addition, I wasn’t trying for truth. My intention was beauty and emotion – even catharsis – not wisdom, immortality or accuracy. If a true picture emerged, it was a by-product. Fiction isn’t necessarily about truth; it can simply make it available.2

In the case of the re-discovered love stories, reading them put me in the author’s shoes – unlike the diaries, where the writer was simply a more detailed doppelganger. Somehow, in substantially fewer words, and via the mechanism of make believe others, I achieved more than simple self-reflection. I became myself. At points, it was a nigh physical sensation, bordering on spooky.

Again, two things jump out. The first is the power of fiction. (Of art. Of representation.) It tells us something about ourselves, as individuals and as a species, that we can transfigure abstractions like squiggles on pages, colours on canvases and arrangements of sound into powerful felt experience. Tears. Elation. Epiphany. Reading stories I had effectively forgotten reminded me what it was like to be the audience and, as a corollary, the other.  

Or was it that the old me became the new other? Does this help to explain why the experience was so unerring – because the self is only what can be remembered, and the forgotten self is a stranger?

Which returns us to memory, and the inexactness thereof. Although memory is not yet fully understood in neuro/evolutionary terms, we do now realise how vital our capacity for forgetting is. Not only does it free up brain space but it affords us a measure of sanity and resilience, allowing us to move past painful experiences and thus contemplate the taking of further risks3. Forgetting also gives being reminded its renowned jolt.

Yet, whereas the diaries offered a date stamped abundance of fossilised autobiography, the relatively sparse pickings of the stories seemed to offer a more complete picture. The jolt of the former was the shock of overwhelming try-hard falsity, the surprise of the latter was the sense of a more truthful and intuitive immersion. One I am sharing and celebrating here, the other has been pulped.

Maybe what I really loved about that handful of love stories was that they preserved a truth I preferred to recall. An edited, beautiful one, made possible by a stream of unconscious forgetting.

In acknowledging this, further questions arise. Is the lack of detail and chronological precision of the fictionalised truth such a big loss? Why do we care if we cannot accurately remember what we were thinking on, say, July 18, 1994? What benefit is there in trawling through the melodramatic minutiae of this break-up or that work situation? And anyway, are the exact details of my former stupidity and self-obsession really necessary, or is it simply enough to remember that, once upon a time in a mirror not so far away, I was an immature drama queen?4       

Either way, the uncluttered nature of the rediscovered stories allowed space for a remembering not dependent on forensics. Neither did they precipitate a flood of detailed nostalgia for the period of their creation. I was not transported back to specific moments or events, but rather to a state of being. A feeling state. I sense it in my gut as I type this sentence.

In the end I do not care if this is a profound reconnection or revisionist fantasy. The self undergoes constant revision, as does memory. The fixed reality of our past is elusive, just as we struggle to fully know our present selves. Yet what remains – captured in the incompleteness, ambiguity and deliberate artifice of fiction – is more than enough to pass for something quintessentially true. 

It is as though, in the gaps, we may find what we are missing. In our stories, our art, we have perhaps invented a means of recording and remembering the truth that facts forgot.              

“Fiction is the lie through which we tell the truth.”

– Albert Camus

PS: Should you be interested, or merely wish to continue procrastinating online, why not check out some of the fortunately undeleted stories that inspired this piece. Having uploaded them to my other blog – Free Love Letters – they are now available publicly for the first time.

1: The Man With The Same Name: in which a curious ‘love quintet’ unfolds in a small town.

2: Queen of The Four Vignettes: in which an aging author finally yields to love.

3: Secondary Highways: in which a young woman imagines roads less travelled.

1: In declaring Unnoticed true, what I am really saying is that I now consider it so. The intervening years and the inevitable reshaping of memory (and the process of forgetting) leave me cautiously uncertain in this regard. Perhaps, in effect, what truly happened with these stories was that I was merely surprised by what I found in the mirror of distance. In years to come, if they survive subsequent attempts to delete them, they might strike me as trite and performative, like the diaries I threw out last April.

2: Although fiction (and other artforms) may not be ‘about truth’ in the way science is, or that non-fiction and documentaries claim to be, it is clear that storytellers aim at a form of truthfulness. As readers, listeners, viewers we respond to this. We are moved. We empathise. We recognise ourselves. We may even change our opinions. However, the truth in art is, hopefully, not merely didactic. Indeed, much of art’s truth can be said to allow for ambiguity.

3: it is often said that few women truly recalling the pain of childbirth would sign up for a second go. The point here is that our brains enable us to ‘forget’ pain – especially physical pain – and that this confers both personal and species-wide advantage. 

4: Some will doubtless attest that I am still an immature drama queen. I cannot deny the possibility of this and perhaps, in 2040 or thereabouts, when I stumble upon this piece for the first time since next week, it will be duly confirmed.

* A NOTE ON AUTHOR IMAGES: Although two of the pix are selfies, and the constructed image is self-created, the main image was taken by Upasana Papadopoulos in her garden in Port Douglas and the top right image by a professional photographer, also called Paul (surname ironically forgotten), in his garden in Warburton. All images are from 2007/8.

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