I have begun writing my memoirs, and the number of discrepancies in my source materials is disconcerting. Dad was the main storyteller in my family. Especially when he got loosened up after a few snorts of whiskey, he would go on at length about his early life. At our urging, when he was in his late 70s, he wrote down some of his accounts. He wrote much the way he talked, and I can hear his narrator’s voice in my mind as I read his words. But now that I am carefully reading stories of his youth on the unfenced frontier of western New Mexico in the early 20th century, I am detecting historical time line problems I did not previously notice.
In addition, my memory is not perfect. I am now pondering how accurately I remember the details of stories Dad told repeatedly. Certainly, he introduced variations in the ways he recounted events. He also exaggerated details to make the stories more entertaining. Even if I had made audio recordings of his stories, I would still be dealing with differing details. But I did not record them, and I was not the only one listening. My versions of Dad’s lively tales vary somewhat from what my brother and sister remember.
My memoirs would be easier to write if I took the ploy of modern screen writers: “Based on True Events.” Those words are code for “I am freely writing an almost completely fictional account that finds its origin in a few historical events.” Maybe I should adopt the senseless use of “based off” that I hear frequently spoken by younger people. A base is something one builds on—a foundation. You cannot build something off a base. If my stories are “based off,” then there need be no connection whatsoever between the base (history) and the story (fiction). Of course, every historical account is fictional to some degree. All historians give their own (fallible) interpretations of events they describe.
Perhaps I would do well to adopt the motto “Never let truth get in the way of telling a good story.” After all, memoirs are based on memories; so why not present my memories without being concerned about their accuracy? Why not write a lively memoir “based on true events”? I could invent all sorts of fascinating details, and few would be the wiser. But I simply cannot ignore historical investigation. I have this bothersome need to determine what happened and to present the story as accurately as I can.
When writing the history of my ancestors and my own personal history, I will expend countless hours muddling through historical time lines and puzzling over how it all fits together into an overarching narrative. The stories themselves are entertaining enough. I do not need to embellish the narrative. When I finally piece it all together, it will be as interesting as my last book, The Storyteller from Kalo Chorio. The time I spent separating fact from fiction when telling this life story of Dafnis Panagides extended well beyond what I ever imagined. But, in the end, I believe I captured the essence of this complicated and significant man. Because my own story begins with my parents, I am trying to understand what shaped them and caused them to become so quirky. I have ample material to address these issues, as well as how I developed a strategy to avoid becoming like them. As I search the oral and written accounts, I will employ the historical methods I learned in graduate school and implemented during my career as a biblical scholar. I will use what I learned about oral history when I was untangling the life of Dafnis, whom I interviewed extensively in Cyprus. Someday, I will be satisfied that I have recounted the story as accurately as possible. I am a historian, not a novelist. But I also believe in employing creative non-fiction. Who says a memoir needs to be boring?