As I’ve noted earlier, there are various perplexing problems to this matter of ferreting out the truth as a writer of memoir. There is the fundamental problem, for instance, that you-the-writer, are not the same as you-the-person who, at seven, heard her father whispering in Mandarin to a Chinese man in the dark. You-the-writer are the woman who, at forty-nine, rises wearily in the night to find that girl with the perked ears. As a writer, I couldn’t supply you with that seven year-old, like a fish on a plate. I had to settle for—and, indeed, was more interested in—something else. The truth I was interested in was primarily emotional. What did that girl in the hush of the room feel—fear? curiosity? the shiver of intrigue?—and what image from that time would make the reader feel it too? Feelings, and also atmosphere, the smell of history, and what that seven year-old’s experience meant about life to her forty nine year-old counterpart. This, rather than a real-time movie, was the true story I was after.
…So, with all this, the judge at the truth-and-memoir court asked, as if it was I, on trial:
Do you solemnly swear to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth?
No. I can’t say that–if you’re talking about literal, factual truth. That’s not possible for any human being. I’d like to, but I can’t swear to that. I am not a movie camera.
This judge of my imagination then continued. He rose taller from his hips, and strained forward on the dais, and huffed out in a deep voice:
Well then, do you, at least, solemnly swear to try to tell the emotional truth?
Yes. That, I can swear to. I cannot be faithful to the letter of the law, but I can to its spirit. I stand by my emotional story. This is real. This happened.