[Editor’s note: This essay was excerpted from Beth Kephart’s Aug. 25 opening address at HippoCamp 2018, Hippocampus Magazine’s annual conference for creative nonfiction writers.]
We live in a truth-imperiled world. We live among fakers and relativists, liars and cheats, embellishers and subjectivists. We live afraid that the truth could be anything, or will remain forever outside our reach, or that it will carry forward, endlessly unspoken.
There’s no truth like the real truth, the saying goes, but where, in this world, is that truth?
Perhaps it lives—in part—in the art of the suppose.
In Notes of a Native Son, James Baldwin writes movingly of his father’s death and the vacuum his father left behind. Baldwin was, he’d said, been “inclined to be contemptuous of my father, for the conditions of his life, for the conditions of our lives. When his life had ended I began to wonder about that life and also, in a new way, to be apprehensive about my own. I had not known my father very well..… When he was dead I realized that I had hardly ever spoken to him. When he had been dead a long time I began to wish I had.”
Baldwin must imagine his father back into life. He must reinvigorate him with shards of remembered images and moments. He must suppose, and he must suppose out loud. He must allow us, his readers, to discover him in the act of reconstruction. Writes Baldwin, “He was, I think, very handsome. I gather this from photographs and from my own memories of him, dressed in his Sunday best and on his way to preach a sermon somewhere, when I was little. Handsome, proud, and ingrown, ‘like a toenail,’ somebody said.”
He was I think.
I gather this from.
Like somebody said.
Baldwin’s facts aren’t immediately on hand; they are elusive. Baldwin must go searching. He must rely on what he does remember, what the photographs teach, what others said. He must research his own father in order to have any hope of finding the truth of him. The truth about him.
In Notes of a Native Son, Baldwin is not inventing his father. He is, as I have said, imagining him. He is turning a lost-ness into a found-ness. He is transforming the dead into the living. It is alchemical.
There is, Patricia Hampl has said, a “truth of noticing.” The truth eludes us when (and because) we do not notice well enough, deeply enough, with perfect discipline or honorable equanimity. We don’t remember the year, the name, the socks he wore. We don’t remember the words he used to say I love you, though we’re sure he would never say that, not precisely. We don’t remember why we ran so fast or why we stopped fighting or whether the bird that sang was a mourning dove or a finch. Seems that we should remember that. They’re very different birds.
We can’t take life in or write it down in its rich detail or its 360-degree complexity—ever. Right this very second you are ignoring, forgetting, mish-mashing —in this real-time, in this room, beneath these lights, in your seat, reading this, also listening to a thought in your head, also distracted by your hunger for chocolate. How much of this instant have you perceived? How much of it will you remember later?
The truth is elusive—as it is happening and as it yearns to be recalled. The truth is incomplete, rubbed off, rubbed down, permeated, bullet-holed, twisted, more than the facts themselves, but reliant, at least in part, on the facts. Still, we are desperate for it. We won’t keep trying. And here’s the interesting thing: We are most trusted as memoirists when we acknowledge our difficulty, our trying, our perilous attempts at knowing. We are most close to the truth when we admit how nearly impossible the truth so often is.
“Somewhere deep in my childhood, my father is coming off the road on a Friday night,” Richard Ford writes in Between Them. “He is a traveling salesman. It is 1951 or ’52. He’s carrying with him lumpy, white butcher-paper packages full of boiled shrimp or tamales or oysters-by-the-pint he’s brought up from Louisiana. The shrimp and tamales steam up hot and damp off the slick papers when he opens them out. Lights in our small duplex on Congress Street in Jackson are switched on bright. My father, Parker Ford, is a large man—soft, heavy-seeming, smiling widely as if he knew a funny joke. He is excited to be home.”
Did you hear that? Did you hear how Ford halved the distance between what he knows for sure—Congress Street, Jackson, the fact of the duplex, the name of his father—and what he senses? Somewhere deep in my childhood, he begins. Packages of boiled shrimp OR tamales OR oysters-by-the-pint. Heavy-seeming. Ford has gathered the details of what he knows for certain and plied them into a moment of fairytale expanse. It’s not that it happened just like this in a certain hour on a certain day in a certain month. It’s that it could have happened. It’s that it probably did. It’s that the essence of Parker Ford is the truest stuff of Parker Ford. It’s that Richard Ford does not pretend to know anymore than he actually does.
James Baldwin. Richard Ford. Giants of literature who are not afraid to negotiate the maybe and the suppose. Casey Gerald has a new book due out in October—There Will Be No Miracles Here—an exemplar of the art of the suppose, and I encourage you to look for it. And if you need one more example, listen to Patti Smith, the rocker and lyric memoirist. She’s not afraid to say what she doesn’t know for certain either, nor is she afraid to name what she is, in fact, certain of.
From Just Kids: “When I was very young, my mother took me for walks in Humboldt Park, along the edge of the Prairie River. I have vague memories, like impressions on glass plates, of an old boathouse, a circular band shell, an arched stone bridge. The narrows of the river emptied into a wide lagoon and I saw upon its surface a singular miracle. A long curving neck rose from a dress of white plumage./ Swan, my mother said, sensing my excitement. It pattered the bright water, flapping its great wings, and lifted into the sky.”
The truth is elusive, but don’t let that defeat you. Let truth’s elusivity galvanize you toward the deep dive for the facts, the shimmery details, the startle of a color red or a wind storm or a mother’s muffins. Get the details you need from photos, get them from songs, get them from conversations with those you love, get them from maps, get them from phone books, get them from diaries, get them from text messages, get them from the day you set aside to dream.
Let truth’s elusivity galvanize you toward pure and pure-hearted research, then let it lead you toward the self-forgiving act of locating the essence that lives between all the facts you cannot find.
Announce the maybe. Announce the suppose. You won’t be telling the truth otherwise.