On the morning of May 18, 1980, volcanologist David Johnston radioed his colleagues at the Vancouver branch of the United States Geological Survey. Mount Saint Helens was erupting. “Vancouver, Vancouver!” he said. “This is it!” And a river of hot gas and rocks barrelled over him. Later, searchers found his backpack, parka, and fragments of his trailer, but not his body.
On a beautiful October day, Arline and I read his story at the Johnston Ridge Observatory, which looks straight at beautiful, gutted Mount Saint Helens from the ridge where Johnston monitored the volcano. A short film in the observatory theater opened with an actor reading Johnston’s last shout, and I was completely distracted by his pronunciation of the city: “VAN-couver, VAN-couver! This is it!” No one who has spent any time in this region puts the emphasis on the first syllable. I waited through the film’s cheesy imagining of the eruption for the credits. The film was made by a company in Boston.
It’s the smallest of errors, but enough to distract a viewer from an entire film. John Gardner, whose book On Becoming a Novelist I read in graduate school, said a novel is a fictional dream, and the wrong word or image or detail will wake the reader from the dream, the last thing the writer wants. But memoir is trickier. The reader expects memoir to be true, so there can be no wrong word or image or detail. Either the cup the father threw across the room was white or it was blue. The memoirist is not supposed to change the color to resonate more deeply with the essay’s overall themes. Maybe the cup should be red, the writer might think, like anger. But the rules of engagement don’t allow the writer to make the cup red.
Still, maybe the writer doesn’t remember what color the cup was. Is it wrong to make up a detail? Some would say yes; the writer should talk to the father or a sibling: “What color was that cup that exploded into shards against wall?” Surely someone remembers not just the color but the shape and feel of the dishes the family used for so many years.
But others would say no; it’s not wrong to make a few things up. The memoirist has poetic license to invent details that are probably true, as long as they are relatively insignificant in the scheme of things. A red cup, a blue cup, who cares? What matters is that the mother would never have bought red cups; she preferred white or, perhaps, white with a pale blue band around the rim. As long as the writer stays true to the characters of the people involved, she can invent a blue-banded cup.
I’ve been thinking about this, not with regards to my essay writing but to my other genre of memoir: the Facebook post. There, I do take poetic license, although most of my sins are of omission, not invention. I post a carefully cropped photograph of our campsite that doesn’t show the restrooms nearby. During our camping trip to the Olympic peninsula in September, I reported on whale sightings but not on the disturbing encounter with campers who claimed we stole a campsite out from under them by moving the stool that marked their possession. I posted a series of sunsets at the beach but didn’t record that Arline fell the next morning on the uneven beach stairs, hyperflexing her still healing knee, and we made a terrified four-hour dash back to the city and the emergency room.
But why share such unpleasant details? We were camping again six weeks later, this time at Mount Saint Helens. Arline used her walking poles this time and took my arm when we crossed slippery patches of boardwalk on Silver Lake. The sun swept across our faces on the drive up to the observatory, and the trees were turning gold, and the mountain was deep asleep. We listened for David Johnston’s last words, echoing across the crater, and he was saying “Van-COU-ver, Van-COU-ver!” We looked at the photo of him from the day before the eruption, his boots propped on a log, his journal open in his lap, a happy smile, and behind him miles and miles of green trees about to go down. We tried to imagine what he might have been feeling at that moment, but we would have been making something up. So we just thanked him for his witness. And descended the mountain.