Back in the 1990s, my brother-in-law John McIlwraith was an occasional commentator for National Public Radio. He specialized in stories about growing up poor in Glasgow, Scotland. I never supposed these stories were entirely true. First of all, they were generally funny, which childhood never is. Second, they were stories of his life and life is not lived as a story, or series of stories. Life is full of random incident, and it is up to memory to invent and impose a narrative. When memory teams up with a first-rate imagination the narrative becomes art.
John’s stories were as faithful to the facts as they needed to be. My sister Dixie, his widow, recalls, “Every commentary was fundamentally true. These stories did happen. But not necessarily the way he said. . . Locating and revealing the humour in a memory, which maybe was not so funny at the time, is a healthy collaboration between artist and audience where everyone benefits.”
These truisms are now being questioned.The other day the Washington Post reported that humorist David Sedaris’s work for National Public Radio “is undergoing new scrutiny.”
The stories he tells may not be true enough for these times.