Stephen Foster Day, and Truth vs Truth
What the…? Who the…?
Yes, Stephen Foster Memorial Day is really a thing…at least in some parts of the world. 150 years ago today, 13 January, 1864, American composer Stephen Collins Foster died.
I hope you know him. If not, I’m grateful to be the first to introduce you.
Today is Manuscript Monday, and Stephen Foster created one of the songs of my childhood, S’wanee River (Old Folks at Home), and subsequently influenced a section of my manuscript in which my family moves from Pennsylvania to Florida, with an iconic stop at the Suwannee River.
Here is a version pretty close to the original song as I remember singing it as a child:
That will be the only traditional version of any of Foster’s songs that I give you today, because Foster’s works have become something more than his original compositions, and I think it’s fitting that since I will be talking about truth in a subjective way, sharing various artists’ interpretations of Foster’s original work is appropriate to today’s post.
As to the Suwannee River trip my family took, I was too young to actually remember it. But through photographs and stories told by my family, I would learn to intertwine my own memories of childhood with a fictitious, “perfect” memory of my family at the Suwannee River, together and happy.
Memory is the ultimate trickster, and when writing memoir, it’s important to honor truth in a way that doesn’t mislead your readers. In this case, I had a factual childhood that included divorce and trauma. But as with many children in less than stable homes, I developed a second part of myself who learned to cope with the bad by creating an imaginary ideal. In my case it was “remembering” past events through photographs of happy moments, burying the true negatives beneath.
While counseling helped me uncover those hard facts I was hiding under a lot of happy, fat, grinning, I cannot “un-remember” a memory, however false it was. But I have learned to see those false memories for what they represented in my life, and for how it helped shape me and provided escape from fear and trauma.
But in writing, why include a false memory once you know it’s false? Isn’t that lying to the reader?
Here’s a version of Old Kentucky Home by Johnny Cash, in which he only retains part of the original song, in the chorus:
The truth of any person’s life includes both our facts and our delusions, and the entirety of a person is not comprised of only the factual truth, or only the emotional truth. We are shaped by both what occurred, and how we remember it occurring, even if those memories are skewed.
The difference, though, in writing essay or memoir, is honesty to the reader.
For my section on Stephen Foster’s song and our trip to Suwannee River, I set up the section, a fictitious memory, with the following phrase: “My first memory is a lie I tell myself repeatedly:” The false memory, then, is inset, and in italics, to remind readers that the section is to be considered separately.
It’s too important to leave out, because creating a false first memory began a path of escape for me that, while keeping me “happy”, was a means of avoidance that stayed with me far into adulthood. And while in some ways it kept me from a lot of pain, it also delayed the healing process that comes from staying grounded, going through a painful event and then moving forward.
I think readers will understand the section when they read it, and appreciate the honesty that comes from recognizing both the good and bad of alternative memories. Thanks, Stephen Foster, for creating a song that accompanied my first “memory” as well as many others we sang around the piano (for real) during happy times.
What do you think about how a writer deals with both facts and emotional truth? Is your preference for straightforward autobiography or do you like the conflict that comes with the gray areas of emotional truth?
And, did you know Stephen Foster’s music before today? What’s your favorite of his work?
Happy Manuscript Monday, readers, and happy Stephen Foster Day. May your work week be easy and fast- paced to reach the weekend.
P.S. I couldn’t pass up leaving you with an upbeat, jazzed up version of S’wanee River by actor Hugh Laurie: