by Jan Priddy
There is a story famous in the northwest corner of Oregon about a man who pulled over during his drive to work on highway 101 and was run over by an entire herd of elk. The driver was injured, the car totaled, and elk staggered all over the road, bloody and dying from the wreck. Terrible carnage. True story.
Elk are handsome and huge. A single bull Roosevelt elk can weigh more than half a ton. A loaded log truck weighs close to forty tons and will kill an elk, but a car run over by an elk has about an even chance of survival. Often as I drive the fifteen miles to work on highway 101, I see them standing on the shoulder of the highway deciding whether to wait for the next driver or leap into the road and kill me.
So I nod when the owner of Creative Fabrics, the Wheeler quilt shop, details the terrible consequences of failing to avoid elk. It’s an impressive story, especially when told with enthusiasm by a local person who has her own reasons to be wary of elk. But since my husband was the man driving that particular car, I can assure Doris that it didn’t happen the way she tells the story.
Gary was on his way to work, irritated by “Swing Out Sister” on the radio, when a pickup truck on the other side of the highway flashed its high beams. Gary slammed on the brakes and stopped in the southbound lane. There was an elk posed right in front of him for an instant before the other driver flashed his beams a second time and the entire herd spooked across the road and slammed straight into my husband’s little Honda station wagon.
Elk thumped, banged, crunched and twanged metal, shattered glass — an elk’s elbow crushed the windshield to within inches of Gary’s skull. Then abruptly as it started, it was over. Gary was unhurt and staggered out of the car. For weeks after it was repaired, we found tufts of fur in the joints and crevices of our car, but the elk, every one of them, had run off into the trees, perhaps bruised, but otherwise undamaged. That’s the story my husband tells.
Readers sometimes forget that even “true” stories may not be entirely accurate. Sometimes we get it wrong. Like the fictional Huck Finn, when telling real life stories we hold back information, lie, and simply misremember while telling parts of the story that seem most critical to us at any moment. Human memories are notoriously unreliable.
For example, in Mary McCarthy’s memoir, Memories of a Catholic Girlhood, a preface to one chapter admits that a main character was already dead at the time of the story that follows. Nevertheless, she tells what she remembers, that her uncle was there. On the first page of her memoir, Liars’ Club, Mary Karr writes that her family members have read her book, and though their version of events might be a little different, they are okay with hers. Zora Neale Hurston’s classic memoir, Dust Tracks in the Road, contains a number of deliberate fabrications, most famously the ten years Hurston shaved off her age.
Cheryl Strayed’s recent memoir, Wild, reflects on the death of her mother which set off a downward spiral in her family, the destruction of her marriage, and a dangerous flirtation with random sex and drug abuse. She refocused her life while walking over a thousand miles alone on the Pacific Crest Trail. It took her years to figure out the truth of what happened in order to write about it. She is candid about assigning blame to herself for her husband’s alienation, her too-heavy pack, her fear. In fact, Strayed is at such pains to accept and detail her complete responsibility for missteps that I sometimes wanted to give her a hug and assure her that we all blunder. She should give herself a break.
In contrast to Strayed’s candor, consider Richard Rodriguez’s wonderful 1982 memoir Hunger of Memory: The Education of Richard Rodriguez which reveals his struggle to find identity in America. Rodriguez insists that ethnic and racial minorities must choose sides, describing his struggles with language, culture, politics, and privilege as he enters mainstream American culture. What the memoir does not mention is that Rodriguez is a gay man, which must also have been a part of his struggle. He chose to conceal this significant detail until his 1992 memoir, Days of Obligation: An Argument With My Mexican Father. Is he an unreliable narrator? Is withholding such information as sexual orientation dishonest or merely understandable given the world of that day?
I don’t begrudge a writer holding back details too precious to reveal. I especially don’t mind being told that a story exists in different versions depending on who tells it. I want to trust the memoirist and I can best trust writers who achieve the distance to see accurately and who admit to fallibility. I want to learn something about my world by understanding the experiences of others — isn’t this one vital reason we read any narrative? I want to learn from others’ insights. I want the wisdom of other lives. We benefit from stories in many ways, and one of those ways is when other peoples’ stories expand our own.
Truth is what happens to us, or what we believe happens — the story of the story. Fiction is what happens to everyone else, and the lessons of stories are real to us whether we know they happened or we’re certain they are fiction. It might even be hard to tell the difference, because truth or not, we learn from good stories, even our own.
On my way to work each day, I need to watch out for elk. It’s one truth of living in a landscape made beautiful by wildlife.
Jan Priddy’s work has earned an Oregon Literary Arts Fellowship, Arts & Letters fellowship, Soapstone residency, Pushcart nomination, and recent and forthcoming publication in The MacGuffin, CALYX, Work Magazine, Raven Chronicles, Ink Filled Page and North American Review. An MFA graduate from Pacific University, she lives and teaches in the NW corner of her home state of Oregon. Jan blogs at Quiet Minds.