the experience vs. the description

I have written a fair amount (some of you might say obsessively) about the art of non-fiction in general and autobiography in particular, and how works published under that rubric do not necessarily reflect events as they actually occurred. Sometimes this is deliberate on the part of the author. Other times there is not any kind of written record to which to refer and the author must rely on memory.

My current reading includes Driving Home: An American Journey by Jonathan Raban. Raban writes about how his travelling self will take notes, but that returning home his writer self will discard many of those notes and wonder why he didn’t more carefully document other things he saw and heard.

…journalists—wedded to the notepad, the tape recorder, the “verified quote,” the querulous gnome in the fact-checking department—may curl their lips in scorn at my habit of trusting the contents of my head more than I trust the documentary evidence of the notebooks. To them I’d offer this remark, made by the Barbizon school painter Jean-François Millet: “One man may paint a picture from a careful drawing made on the spot, and another may paint the same scene from memory, from a brief but strong impression; and the last may succeed better in giving the character, the physiognomy of the place, though all the details may be inexact.”

Yet another facet of the non-fiction prism which reminds me that the exact verisimilitude of what we read in such works cannot be relied on.

But people who live in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones, and I need to remind myself that I do the same thing. Perhaps not to the extent of John Steinbeck who, in the Log from the Sea of Cortez, wrote his wife out of the journey when she was in fact there every minute, cooking meals for the three men. But it is only a matter of degree.

Last week I dispatched some notes from Cambria. I mentioned an intestinal upset to which I devoted very little space in relation to the total blog post. In fact that intestinal nastiness informed our trip to a far greater degree than the note might have suggested, to the point that we had to forego dinner at our favorite Cambria restaurant, always the centerpiece of our visit, and considered coming home early. In this case, however, I didn’t want my personal ailment to distract you, good reader, from the picture of the place I wanted to paint.

I once pledged that everything I told you would be true, but warned that I wouldn’t tell you everything. That is still my philosophy.

I can’t think of a better way to do this.



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