Which Came First: The Event or the Story?

By: Stephen Carter
October 2, 2011

Dear Sister Carter:

Sadly, I am having a hard time thinking of something interesting to send your way today. No worthy mission stories are coming to mind. Just random memories—memories I actually haven’t accessed in a long time. Would they be worth your while?

According to a podcast I listed to a few weeks ago, the memories that are most pure—the closest to what actually happened—are those that haven’t been accessed since they were formed. As you access a memory, the synapses that created the original memory come together. The problem is, each time they merge, the formation changes ever so slightly; other memories bleed in, hints of present moment thoughts attach themselves. So I suppose if I wanted to give you something really unique, really true to life, I would dig deep until I found a memory that hadn’t surfaced in my conscious mind in 15 years. A pure memory.

But just because it was pure wouldn’t necessarily mean that the memory would be interesting. For one thing, it might not have a context; it might not have a connection to any mother memories; and therefore, the memory would have little or no resonance. I would tell you something seemingly random, like about the time I was running down the street and crashed into a crotch-height bicycle pole. “So what?” you would probably ask. “What’s the point?”

All these months, I’ve been telling you “stories with a point” based on my mission experiences. As I’ve written these stories, I’ve gone over my memories again and again, comparing them with other memories, drawing connections, and finding a point. At the end of this process, I’ve presented you with a story I call “true,” when in fact, the memories the story is based on are less true than they were when I started. I’ve muddied my memories to make a story.

I suppose this liquid quality to memory is one reason to keep a mission journal—at least you’re creating a relatively contemporaneous record of what you perceived. But even this method is squirrely. I noticed as I went through one of my missionary journals how filtered the entries were. I didn’t write events so much as interpretations of events. In fact, I noticed that the ratio of interpretation to events was around 5:1. I was so much more interested in how the experiences of the day could fit into the missionary story structure (the kind you tell at your homecoming talk), that the events themselves didn’t just take a back seat, they took the trunk.

I actually get frustrated with my missionary self for being so caught up in fitting my experiences into this Procrustean bed. I feel like I lost out on recording much of the human aspect of my mission because I was so caught up with the theological aspects. Sometimes it seems that my handwriting is the most personal things about my mission journals.

The Philip K. Dick inside me has hypothesized that in the not too distant future, insurance companies will require all missionaries to wear a GPS and a video camera 24/7. At the end of our missions, we’ll have a complete record of everything we did, everywhere we went, and everything we said on our missions. Our experiences will no longer be filtered. We could go back and see, from a first-person point of view, exactly what happened. If this scenario actually happens, I wonder what might happen to our mission stories.

Having all that access to information, will returned missionaries feel obligated to go back through their footage to make sure their stories sticks to the events? Or will they prefer to let their memories and age-old storytelling mechanism do their thing? Will events start to interpret stories more than stories now interpret events? Or will we find that we are more attached to our interpretations than the events? Might we find ourselves preferring to rely on the shifting patterns of our neurons, feeling that they have somehow captured something that video and audio had missed?

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4 Responses to Which Came First: The Event or the Story?

  1. Stephen M (Ethesis) on October 3, 2011 at 6:00 AM

    just because it was pure wouldn’t necessarily mean that the memory would be interesting.

    Indeed.

    What is really interesting are the studies with advertisements and the recreation of memory, or why so many people remember drinking coke from bottles at homecomings where the football venue only had paper cups.

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  2. Andrew S. on October 3, 2011 at 9:22 AM

    I am fascinated to the extent that event “stories” change over time…so that’s very consistent with the idea that as we draw from memory, we make different connections and the memory becomes impure.

    But I also think it’s absolutely true that many journals are designed to be more about interpretation than about “just the facts, ma’am.” I think interpretation is what makes life interesting…that’s why we interject it into everything…even when we may not be reliably be able to ascertain interpretation, motives, etc.,

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  3. Mike S on October 3, 2011 at 11:10 AM

    I like the concept of this post. I do think “missionary journals” are ALL slanted. You try to write “inspiring” things for later perusal or for your kids to read someday.

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  4. Paul 2 on October 3, 2011 at 11:59 AM

    Stephen, I like these posts. It may be that finding meaning in past events is also a kind of way to re-choose our past choices, even if it is done purely subconsciously. Very interesting. As long as you are doubting memories, it is also important to doubt that they are initially recorded correctly. We have problems there too. Overall, it is nice not to be necessarily pinned to our old selves.

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