Issue #54, Lost Truths & Family Legends

Write What You Don't Know

Between the Lines

Jessica Handler

Write What You Don't Know

From our very first endeavors in creative writing, we’re told to write what we know. As nonfiction writers, we’re proud of our fealty to the truth. We don’t make things up. Or, if we do make things up, we employ the deftness and elegance of signal phrases. We write, I imagine. Or, I believed. We write, She told me, because the fact is that she did, and the truth conveyed to us is hers (whoever she may be).

Writing creative nonfiction, I take great delight in working with what I know and what I can learn. What happens, though, when facts, for any number of reasons, just can’t be known?

What happens when facts, for any number of reasons, just can’t be known?

Here’s a true story: In a writing workshop, a student of mine worried because she was unable to pin down the facts about a story from her husband’s family background. He didn’t know the truth either, only a legend of a forebear’s romance in a European country during a war long ended. The workshop student said there were no letters, no documents, and no one living who knew the story for certain. Did it happen? she worried. Could she write the story into her memoir if she had no proof?

“First having read the book of myths, / and loaded the camera, / and checked the edge of the knife-blade, / I put on / the body-armor of black rubber / the absurd flippers / the grave and awkward mask,” wrote poet and essayist Adrienne Rich in her poem “Diving into the Wreck.” As nonfiction writers, we’re eager to carve open our myths. Family histories are made of myths: what is myth but a story of ancestry built in part on falsehood? Writing a true story, we want to track down the truths, both objective and subjective, using documents, photos, and interviews to corroborate our story. But sometimes, family members are dead or otherwise unavailable to us. Documents may have been destroyed or lost. Medical and legal records can require permissions an author simply can’t obtain. What we’re left with is something like an old-fashioned game of telephone, where one whisper builds on another until the original meaning is gone. And as we write, we’re stymied, trying to find facts in those diminishing whispers.

But what if we considered this disadvantage from another angle and regarded the state of “not knowing” as fact? Marcia Aldrich, in Companion to an Untold Story, her memoir about a friend’s suicide and her endeavor to forgive not only him but also herself, addresses this concern head-on. She writes, “From the outset I have believed I was trying to write a story about the story, to be in its company. I can’t piece together a seamless, coherent account. Just the opposite. This is a record of my struggle with Joel’s struggle and indicates the limits of what I know and what I understand.”

Aldrich had some of what she calls her friend’s “nonmementos”—spoons, an egg coddler, letters. But he had destroyed personal photos, official documents, and the like. And so, in her larger narrative, she embraces the fact of those losses and what they might have told her.

As a nonfiction writer, what do you do when you don’t have a piece or pieces of research? You could consider yourself oddly lucky. The absence of these items is a conflict, and without conflict, there’s no plot. And so the story of not knowing becomes the story.

The facts my student believed she so crucially needed were out of her reach. But her attempts to locate a ship’s manifest, to gather family letters or diaries, to talk with an aged relative who could tell his own prismatic truth—those were all facts in themselves.

A dearth of facts can create a fertile space in the construction of a creative nonfiction narrative. Try considering, on the page, why you deem certain material important or where you and your narrative are without those facts. Tell the story of your research—its rewards, twists and turns, and dead ends. Write about the acts of myth-making and myth-uncovering. Write about what you don’t know.

I had sympathy for my workshop student: I’ve faced that empty space in my own writing. Before my father died, he told me his great aunt had been buried in a coffee can under a hedge on his parents’ lawn. This can’t possibly be true for countless reasons, not the least of which is that she’d have to have been cremated, which isn’t part of the Jewish burial tradition. I have no facts about my great-great-aunt other than a photo of her with a paper moon, probably at Coney Island. My grandmother and her brother are there, too—little kids then, long dead now. At first, this might seem to leave me with nothing to write about, at least not as nonfiction.

But I have so much. I have the fact of my father’s belief in the coffee can story, and I know firsthand of his affection for his great aunt. I have what I know from my own experience about my father’s penchant for strange stories and how I wish I could have seen Coney Island in its heyday. If I were brave enough, I could go to my father’s childhood home and ask the strangers who live there now if I could search their hedge for an ancient coffee can. Someday, if I’m ever in the neighborhood, I might. That’s a plot element right there, regardless of what I find—or don’t find.

Creative nonfiction is a gloriously flexible genre. What we don’t know or can’t know doesn’t have to wreck our writing. Instead, what seemed at first to be only an empty space can be an opportunity to shape and expand a narrative, exploring the gaps and writing our way through the myths.

* Illustration by Anna Hall

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Author Bio

Jessica Handler

Jessica Handler is the author of Braving the Fire: A Guide to Writing About Grief and Loss and Invisible Sisters: A Memoir. Her forthcoming... read more


Eric Poole

April 6, 2015

I had a similar problem in my book, "Company of Heroes" (Osprey, 2015). The central figure, a Vietnam War Medal of Honor recipient, was born to upper-class Hungarians who emigrated to the United States after World War II. The war hero's father had been a mid-level government official and an uncle had been in the cabinet of Nicholas Kallay, Hungary's prime minister before Hitler's 1944 coup to install an Arrow Cross (Hungary's Nazi party) government. That coup was provoked by a diplomatic mission by Kallay's government to meet with Winston Churchill to discuss the feasibility of an invasion on the eastern shore of the Adriatic Sea.

First, there was the issue of whether the father of an American war hero had been complicit in the Holocaust while living as an upper class man and working as a government official in a nation allied with Germany. Then, there was the claim by the U.S. soldier's brother that his uncle, the cabinet minister, had participated in that envoy to meet with Churchill.

And, since the main theme of my book is the chronicle of a combat unit in Vietnam, how the survivors dealt with life after the war and how the effort to see their comrade earn the U.S. military's highest award for combat valor helped them all recover from their emotional wounds, neither of those issues were more than interesting tidbits on the periphery of "Company of Heroes'" central plot.

Ultimately, I attempted to answer the first by citing Hungary's larger history - that it never engaged in severe genocide against Jews until after the 1944 Arrow Cross takeover (Adolf Eichmann was captured in South America and executed in Israel at least partly for his acts in Hungary during the final months of World War II), and the U.S. soldier's parents had left Hungary by then. As they were emigrating to Austria, the soldier's brother said he remembered seeing his father shouting at a German officer, and that his father was hostile toward the Nazis.

The second question was largely unanswerable, aside from some circumstantial evidence - the uncle was a cabinet minister and Kallay did extend an envoy to Churchill, which got me close enough to attribute it to a "family legend," which in turn was close enough for what was nothing more than a peripheral tidbit.

virginia hill

May 9, 2016

Your old fashioned game of ' telephone' is known in Australia as the 'bush telegraph' and as you can imagine, deemed to have zero reliability by the citizenry!
Faced with the empty space around an enigmatic charming Uncle's suicide 65 years ago it's a struggle to put together any information or thoughts given the limits of tolerance & denial about such an act in the previous century, whilst trying to resist "the great condescension of the present towards the past"
Virginia Hill

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