I have always attempted to remember the various escapades of my life with precision, despite the onerous reality that memory is a moving target. As we change, our memories change; it’s why when we look at old photographs we see details that shouldn’t be there, people we thought were elsewhere, clothes we didn’t think we were wearing. Trying to be faithful to what actually happened is a Sisyphean task, fit for loonies and sticklers, and yet it is what I try to do. Ask me about an experience, and I’m just as likely to expound on what it felt like as to tell you what happened.
Naturally, not everyone has this fanatical appreciation for the truth – and no, I’m not about to get political. (Take a moment for a deep sigh of relief.)
I have heard a few tall tales in my time – uphill both ways – and they are never difficult to spot. Patrick F. McManus in his book, They Shoot Canoes, Don’t They? elevates it to a supreme art form. Hunting stories become sagas; the fish get bigger and bigger; the snowstorms more intense, his remarks wittier and wittier.
There was, for example, the incident with the rock climbers, all attached to one rope as they climbed up a vertical rock face; the fit young things looked down their noses at the older men. McManus and his friend Retch Sweeney continued past them up the mountain.
“’Those guys weren’t too friendly, were they?’ Retch said later.
‘No, they weren’t,’ I said. ‘The very least they could have done was offer to give us a hand with the canoe’” (44).
That is as subtle as it gets. It’s fabulous.
There’s grace in a beautiful, outrageous lie; sometimes the truth is better than fiction, but there are imaginative limitations to truth.
Your dog might, for example, decide to behave badly when the new minister comes over for dinner, but not with such striking personality and variability as is possible in fiction. Instead of merely dragging his butt around the yard immediately outside the dining room, he drags out the performance, a rictus grin of absolute pleasure etched across his face. The dog then produces a whole fleet of decaying animal remains as close to the table as possible – and one live canine of the female persuasion. On other occasions, the dog belches purposefully in front of female company, befriends tramps (but not anyone who has bathed recently), scares away mildly domesticated wolves, and sprays not only himself but the entire front yard of the house with skunk urine. In essence, the dog – aptly named ‘Strange’ – becomes in fiction what he could only have aspired to be in real life.
That’s the crux of it: we all aspire to have juicy stories to tell, experiences that continue to bear fruit for us for years afterwards. The difference is that some of us have scruples; and some of us publish splittingly funny works of literature.