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Fictionalizing Our Own Histories - a Guest Post

Updated: May 30, 2022

by Dave Mason

I’m lucky to have three really cool siblings. We grew up together, for a number of years, until the natural course of our lives took us in various directions. So we shared many of the experiences that came with occupying the same house, being raised by the same parents, visiting the same aunts, uncles, and cousins, immigrating from one country to another while we were all under the age of ten, and many other aspects of our early existences, both monumental and insignificant. It might be said that we share a common history.

But of course, even when we lived together and not only shared, but in many ways co-created, the same little stretch of history, we each lived our own versions of things. We each experienced unique pasts within our shared one, just as we have gone on to experience unique presents.

I think I remember a great many of the events from that now distant past quite clearly—the sights, sounds, and feelings they evoke etched into my brain. But if you ask my brothers and sister—whom I know for a fact through photographic evidence were actually present during many of those events—my version of them is not 100% aligned with the realities of the moments that they recall living.

Sure, broadly speaking, historical events can be said to have happened: on June 6, 1944, allied forces invaded France, and we’re all pretty confident that the War of 1812 took place in 1812. When I was young, learning about fact-centric, event and date history was not that interesting to me. It wasn’t until I began to learn about the people—and by that I mean the individuals, not the masses—who were involved in history that the subject began to grab hold of me. When I began to devour all kinds of books related to the exploits and memoirs of those who’d actually lived through historical events, I became fascinated by their experiences, the circumstances in which they’d found themselves, and the consequences of the decisions and actions they’d taken as a result. As a kid, I’d essentially accepted their stories as true, but now, as what I’ve told myself must be a more worldly and savvy adult, I recognize them to be mostly true-ish. Because at a personal level, isn’t all history subject to a tiny little bit of fiction?

We all know, or know of, people who’ve invented past exploits outright, claiming, for example, to have been to places or done things that are demonstrably, provably false. We call those people liars at worst, or maybe BS-ers in a more forgiving sense. But isn’t everyone at least a little bit of a BS-er? I’m no expert in psychology, but my guess is that each of us naturally crafts narratives that help us frame our own personal experiences in ways that help us make sense of our lives, help us remember the good and cope with the bad. We’re all writers and editors on some level, and it seems to me that storifying and slightly fictionalizing our own histories is kind of the personal version of manners. Most of us would never think to tell everyone we meet the absolute truth, because feelings would undoubtedly be hurt and positive relationships would be few and far between. So why would we do that to ourselves?

Maybe the successful melding of fact and fiction is intrinsic human behavior, and when authors do it intentionally—with sensitivity, skill, intelligence, and fidelity to the accepted facts within which a story is crafted—their work resonates with us in ways that are deep, and dare I say, true-ish? When we read successful fiction, we enter into an emotional agreement with its creator, knowing full well that the story we are immersing ourselves in is imaginary, but feeling what the characters feel in very real ways nonetheless. The fact that our vicarious experiences are created simply through words on a page is a form of magic.

We rely on a weight of information to determine historical facts, cross-referencing and collating documented and physical and anecdotal evidence to arrive at credible truth. It’s the anecdotal stuff that can cloud things a little, or a lot, because it’s fundamentally human. Whether events described happened five minutes or five hundred years ago, because anecdotal stories are filtered through human perception and shaped by human intent, they are inherently subjective.

Big history—like the D-Day invasion or the War of 1812—is made up of millions and millions of small histories. The actual lived truths of those small histories cannot ever really be known, because some of them vanished unrecounted by the people who experienced them, and because so many of the individual stories that did get told were personal, and anecdotal, and therefore subjective, no doubt edited and adapted and filtered to some extent by each teller’s unique point of view.

So it’s probably reasonable to say that most stories that extend beyond recorded / accepted / verifiable facts like dates or dollar figures or time frames are essentially “based on actual events,” despite their teller’s best attempts to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. For example, I know for a fact that I was once a quarterback on a championship-winning football team, but I’ve also noticed that the older I get, the better I was in that game! And now that I’ve written and published a historical fiction novel (in which I too endeavored to create credible lives lived by invented people during both broadly factual and wholly imagined events), of course I have a narrative about that process formed in my head. It’s my spin, for sure, but mostly true. I think.

Maybe the essential truth of being human is partially rooted in our attachment to storification. Jonathan Gottschall’s book The Storytelling Animal dives deep into the complex reasons why humans love stories. “Humans live in landscapes of make-believe. We spin fantasies. We devour novels, films, and plays. Even sporting events and criminal trials unfold as narratives. Stories help us navigate life’s complex social problems—just as flight simulators prepare pilots for difficult situations.”

Maybe our need for all of this is even more elemental, because each and every one of us will one day be history. As Richard Wagamese, one of Canada’s great authors, said about our paths through life, “All that we are is story. From the moment we are born to the time we continue on our spirit journey, we are involved in the creation of the story of our time here. It is what we arrive with. It is all we leave behind.”

Author Bio:

Born in England and raised in Canada, Dave Mason is an internationally recognized graphic designer, a Fellow of The Society of Graphic Designers of Canada, and a cofounder of a number of software companies. His first novel, EO-N, is the recipient of 13 literary awards including Best Historical Fiction and Best First Novel, and its rights have been acquired for film and television. He divides his time between Chicago, Illinois, and Lunenburg, Nova Scotia.

Books by Dave Mason:

Editorial Review of "EO-N" - winner of the "Highly Recommended" award of excellence from The Historical Fiction Company

Follow the Author:

Twitter: @davemasonwrites

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