The man approached me before my shoes hit the ground.
I toed out of my pedal baskets by feel as I searched his sunken face for a sign of familiarity. Lacquered mahogany eyes. Barbell earrings. Wrist-sized ponytail.
“15 bucks isn’t a lot to you, is it?”
I leaned my bike up again the side of the Burger King he’d just appeared from behind. I was immediate conscious of my freshly polished dress-shoes and pressed blazer—a stark contrast from the heavily scratched mid-eighties Bianchi frame I rode downtown to avoid theft.
“I actually don’t have anything on me. But I’ve got a moment. Let me know what’s up.”
The man spoke in slow and tentative phrases. He’d come to Victoria to find work. He was staying at a local hostel where he exchanged labour for room and board yet every night that he paid for his bed in cash allowed him the following day to hunt for jobs. His story was fluid—he’d told it before. He paused between paragraphs to make sure I was still listening. To make sure I believed.
There are two types of truth in this world. Lowercase truth and uppercase Truth. I know this because as a nonfiction writer they’ve been my currency for the past 6 years.
Lowercase truth is the stuff that checks out in court. It’s what science is built on. It explains how the physical universe works. Uppercase Truth is a lot murkier. But when it surfaces within a narrative—when you relate to a narrator's thoughts and intentions—it's absolutely crystal clear.
From 2007 until 2013 I gave up telling people I studied creative nonfiction.
Journalism? Sure. It was easier than trying to explain the bizarre hybridized nomenclature of the genre.
Where have I read it? Dave Eggers’ “A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius” might be considered creative nonfiction depending on whom you ask. Charles Darwin’s “The Origin of Species Definitely” is definitely not. And don't get me started on James Frey.
The nonfiction part is easy. Reality is the raw material from which we whittle our anecdotes. You can’t make something out of nothing—everything exists within a set of facts. But what exactly entails creation? How much can we chip away at their corners or bend them to make others fit.
The best explanation I have is that the sheer existence of characters, locations, and events don’t merit a story. A story has to have a purpose—at its most basic, it makes you feel. Feelings come when one relates to a character. When a story seems to 'matter.' It denies the laws of thermodynamics; makes a story weigh more than the sum of its parts.
What makes something worth writing about? Adventure? Tragedy?
Something young adults haven’t witnessed enough of. That became painfully obviously after four years of churning out a couple stories each week.
Mother/Father – Son/Daughter tensions were normally (but not always) interesting. Eating disorders almost never worked (yet could be made morbidly funny with careful penmanship and ample retrospect.) I wrote about almost everything—working at a retirement home, breaking up with my first girlfriend, finding a dead goldfish in my cereal. I even forced myself out on new adventures once the well ran dry—to Turkey, and Uganda, and Vietnam.
But there was one story that I absolutely refused to tell.
When I was three-years old, I was diagnosed with a brain tumor. There’s no way I could remember this, but it happened. I have the scars. A few additional details of the experience stick with me to this day. I remember the worn suede of the balance beams I clamoured across as I rebuilt my equilibrium in the coming years. I still have the stuffed animals I received when I was discharged from the hospital. To this day I really, REALLY, hate MRI machines.
A summary of the experience exists in patient files and second hand anecdotes, but the real story lost in the forgotten gaps between them. According to the B.C. children’s hospital, I’m a survivor of childhood cancer. But I can’t speak to it any further than that. To me it isn’t True.
How many things that I’ve written about in this blog actually happened? To me? All of them. I promise you. But if you were there, an invisible bystander, you would undoubtedly have witnessed them in a different way than I did.
Memories are misleading and amorphous. They shift over time and are transcribed selectively. Every time we remember something we remember it differently—not simply due to the lifespan of the protein it’s stored in but because our subsequent experiences are the lens through which hindsight works.
My Bangladesh was first a function of my Thailand; but now my Thailand is also a function of my Bangladesh. Some Canada exists in both of them (and vice-versa.) My Marguerite has never met my Clifford, but his road-sick wariness pours out of every syllable of her Afrikaans.
None of this is observable of course, but you’ll have to trust me. All you have are my words.
Lowercase truth can be identified through fact-checking, data, and footnotes. Uppercase Truth makes your mouth feel dry when it’s not. It burns behind your eyes and plays timpani with your pulse.
It was absolutely true that I didn’t have 15 dollars to give the man. But that didn’t make the situation any more comfortable. By refusing I was doing one of two things: denying help to someone who truly needed it or admitting that I didn’t trust another human being based simply on the conditions I’d met him in.
His eyes scanned me pockets. “You don’t believe me.”
“It shouldn’t matter. Nobody asks me where I plan to spend my money. The same should go for you.”
I didn’t tell him that that particular money was the result of working part-time for little more than minimum wage. Or how long it would take me, working those hours, to pay off my travel debts. Or that he’d probably chosen the worst city in the province to travel to in search of work. He didn’t need that lecture.
He had his Truth.
And I had mine.