Ways of Knowing

September 20, 2010

You’ve noticed, I’m sure, that when you’re in the midst of a project, what you need to think about comes your way as if some undirected creative spirit is guiding the information to you.  When I first started reading Julia Cameron’s creativity books and read that I thought, maybe for her, but not for me.  But since then, I’ve realized that, yes, it’s true.

It might be that when we’re writing hard our senses are more acute and we notice what we need to notice; we’re in a receptive mood that enables us to pay attention to what we might have glossed if we weren’t working steadily and faithfully.

That happened to me recently on an airplane, when I was on a long flight from Munich to Newark, and the flight attendants were handing out newspapers.  I took one, The Global Edition of The New York Times, though I ordinarily reserve flight time for reading, movies, and napping, not newspaper reading.  And I’m glad I did.

There was a book review that grabbed my attention by Derek Bickerton of Through the Language Glass: Why the World Looks Different in Other Languages, written by Guy Deutscher.  The book discusses whether language is an object of culture or determined by human biology.  In Through the Language Glass, Deutscher examines idiosyncratic examples from various languages that illustrate, to him, that culture, not human biology, is responsible for how languages differ from one another.  But the issue is complex because, for example, of the curious fact that the word for blue appears in the world’s languages far later than words for black and white (which occur first), then read, then green or yellow.  Some have argued that this is because the human ability to see color developed over time; Deutscher argues that, no, the development of dyes and artificial coloring accounts for this fact.

But the most fascinating, for our work as writers of people’s lives, is Deutscher’s account of the relationship between language and thought.  He takes up the argument about whether speakers of all languages think in similar ways or whether different languages “force” their speakers to think about the world differently.  (The common illustration we all know is the fact that Eskimo languages have far more words for snow than languages where snow isn’t a prominent feature of the landscape and understanding the condition of snow isn’t so essential to survival.)

Deutscher discusses the Amazonian language Matses “whose arsenal of verb forms obliges you not only to explicitly indicate the kind of evidence – personal experience, inference, conjecture or hearsay – on which every statement you make is based, but also to distinguish recent inferences from older ones and say whether the interval between inference and event was long or short.  If you choose the wrong verb form, you are treated as a liar.”

After reading this, I saw how helpful it would be for us to clarify for ourselves whether the statements we’re making in our memoirs are based upon personal experience, inference, conjecture, or hearsay.

Let me illustrate.  I’m writing about my father’s experiences during World War II.  As I write, it would be helpful for me to think about how I know what I plan to write.

Is the narrative based upon personal experience?  Well, the closest I can come to writing from personal experience is describing what I perceived to be the effect of my father’s wartime service that I myself, as his child, witnessed.  (A narrative about how he behaved when he came back from the service, which I recall.  A narrative about how he behaved throughout our lives together, which I survived.)  So it helps, doesn’t it, to realize that this is the only facet of my father’s narrative that depends upon personal experience – what I myself witnessed about his behavior?  (There are some that might describe this as inferences I made based upon his behavior, but I don’t.)

Is the narrative based upon inference?  Well, in my account, I did a huge amount of research about what happened on my father’s base in the Pacific.  Everything I write about my father’s experience that depends upon my research is based upon inference: I infer from what I learned that my father had a series of experiences there.  Now because my father also spoke to me about his wartime experiences, my inferences are either more or less firmly grounded.  (Let’s say, for example, he told me – which he did – about a huge explosion that occurred on the base.  This was his experience; his telling me about it makes it hearsay for me; my researching the explosion and adding facts that he didn’t tell me pushes the narrative over into inference, but inference that is more firmly grounded than if he never mentioned the explosion).

Is the narrative based upon conjecture?  There is a point in my narrative where my father told me that a buddy of his lit himself on fire by accident; my father commandeered a bus and took him to the base hospital.  Later in his life, my father became a fireman.  I believe that there’s a link between the two (there was also an enormous fire on the base that he told me about), but this is conjecture.

In the realm of conjecture, too, is speculating about a person’s needs, wishes, and desires.  And this is often an important part of memoir writing too.  But it’s not writing from personal experience, but from conjecture.

Is the narrative based upon hearsay?  I had a series of conversations with my father about his repairing airplanes.  My father also had a series of conversations with my sons and they told me what he said.  So, these narratives are hearsay because I didn’t personally witness what my father experienced.

So…what I find fascinating here is that I believe each of these ways of knowing, if you will, can/should be included in memoir.  But I’ve discovered that very often memoirists try to stick to the first: narratives based upon personal experience.  This, I believe, hamstrings the narrative, makes it less interesting than it might be.  There are many ways of gaining information, and we should feel free to use all of them.  We need to think about whether, in our narratives, we have the obligation to tell our readers how we’ve arrived at our narratives, whether, for example, we should say “My father tells me about a time when….”; “My sons tell me a story my father told them….”; “I wonder whether he became a fireman because….”; “I suspect, from what he told me, that my father saw the mushroom cloud, heard the blast….”  There are memoirists who believe, though, that this is not necessary, that the writer has the freedom to write “my father saw the mushroom cloud, heard the blast,” when in fact all my father told me was that there was an explosion when he was on the base and that he saw it.  Here, I think, it’s a matter of writer’s choice.  Though I do believe that interjecting how we know can become a fascinating part of our narratives.

Distinguishing recent inferences from older ones is a fascinating issue in memoir, and I will write about this in a separate post.

But do try this.  Go back over a narrative you’ve written.  See whether you stick to one “way of knowing” or another.  Do you only write from personal experience?  Do you include inference? conjecture? hearsay?  And if you don’t, can you?  Can using a multiplicity of these ways of knowing make your narrative more complex?  Only you can determine this.  This is your choice.  But it’s wonderful to know we have the ability to make these choices.

As for how this article impacted my work-in-progress….I realized that if didn’t use conjecture, my narrative would be flat.  Now I’m working on trying to figure out how to incorporate this aspect into my work.

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