Confession time: I come across in my memoir as more collected and clever than I really am, and my life seems more exciting and interesting than it actually is.
This is due not to dishonesty — everything in the memoir is true. It’s because of the nature and structure of storytelling. Unless there’s a good story-based reason, it’s generally advisable to skip the part where the protagonist was awkward or tired or missed the point, the seven meaningless dead ends before she found the way forward, or the nine so-so people she met before running into a kindred spirit who changed everything. Not to mention the cumulative hours she spent in line at the grocery store or where she went to get glycerin suppositories to deal with a bout of severe constipation.
All this is very innocent on the face of it. It should be obvious that memoirs are the super-concentrated, carefully-sculpted version of the story, not the whole bloated, glorious mess that is actual reality. As Lawrence Durrell put it:
“The solace of such work as I do with brain and heart lies in this — that only there, in the silences of the painter or the writer can reality be reordered, reworked and made to show its significant side. Our common actions in reality are simply the sackcloth covering which hides the cloth-of-gold — the meaning of the pattern.”
The problem comes when people mistake stories for reality. I remember being in my early twenties, for example, working at a summer camp deep in southern Russia and soon to embark on a solo journey across the Middle East. When I came down with an embarrassing medical condition that threatened to short-circuit all of it and send me home early, I was deeply distressed.
Looking deep inside, I realized that what was getting me down the most was the fact that this was not how the story was supposed to go. I fancied myself to be living an interesting narrative, and this setback was like a scratch on the record, just pure dumb luck. Bad storytelling. I remember thinking half-jokingly to myself, “Alexander the Great didn’t have to deal with this crap.” (Of course, the more I thought about it, the more I realized he almost certainly did have to deal with all kinds of crap historians never wrote about!)
Luckily I was able to continue the journey, and I ended up writing a memoir, though in a very unexpected way. (The Russia part was skipped entirely as the Middle East became the focus of the story.) But I kept thinking about those days of feeling utterly demoralized because my life wasn’t as elegant as a book.
Then halfway through drafting my novel, I started to feel queasy because things seemed to happen a little too conveniently sometimes. My protagonist, after receiving a mystical gift that gives her virtually infinite freedom, goes on a quest to find the meaning of her past ten years, which didn’t turn out as she had hoped, leading her to feel like a cosmic failure. In Switzerland, Beirut, and the Sinai, she meets a brilliant assortment of characters who help her sort out how to define success for herself, how to relate to her sexuality in a healthier way, and whether she can connect with a higher self to make her way in the world in a more authentic and joyful way.
I know from going on such quests myself that things usually don’t happen nearly as quickly or linearly as they do in this novel. She stumbles across things in a span of two months that it took me seven years of travel, writing, and introspection to realize and sort through. I met characters every bit as amazing as the ones Lauren comes across, but not all in a row. There were weeks or months when I felt like I was spinning my wheels, and things sometimes happened in an order that made no sense at all.
So I worry that books can give travelers the wrong impression, much like Hollywood’s airbrushing and hidden personal trainers, stylists, and macrobiotic chefs can give women the wrong impression.
In many ways the consciousness of our species is based on stories. But stories themselves are not reality. They are an artist’s rendering of reality. And mistaking one for the other carries the danger of making people feel inadequate or boring or awkward for no good reason — simply because they live in reality, the same place every writer also lives.
And now I wonder: Should storytelling come with a disclaimer?
Pamela Olson is the author of the award-winning memoir Fast Times in Palestine. She’s working on a novel called The Bracelet: A Novel of Freedom. To read Chapter One, click here. To pre-order it for just $5, visit the book’s Kickstarter campaign.