By Mario Varricchio
Historically on these pages, I’ve interviewed local creatives and shared their story. I arrange to meet at a favourite place then I ask some leading questions while digitally recording their answers. These stories are then transcribed onto the page literally word for word. There’s no room for embellishment, not from me anyway, and the whole process is made much easier when the subject has an interesting story, speaks well and of course, makes things sound more interesting than they probably were. There are challenges but these are mostly of a logistical nature. That’s why, every now and then, without the pressure of arranging an interview time and place, photo shoots etc. I’ve written directly from my head. In keeping with the ‘As Told To’ theme, these stories have a basis in truth. Well….mostly.
I recently half read an article about how each time we tell a story from our past, our memory goes back to the last time we recalled the story not to the actual event. I’ve told everyone this, so this time I’m telling you based on the memory of me retelling it to the next door neighbour yesterday. I’m not going to bother to direct you to the research as that’s not my style and actually helps when I over embellish the truth. You see, I love telling a good story and to be honest, I’m not too shy when it comes to the art of (slight) exaggeration. I mean, sometimes the truth is boring and as long as it harms no one and is in the sake of a good story, what’s it matter?
From the outside looking in
Years ago for some team building activity at some long ago defence industry job, we were asked to draw our very first memory. For me that involved reliving the tormenting moment that my dummy was thrown away forever on a family friends farm into the world’s biggest bonfire! Admittedly I was nearly 4 years old so it was time it went and I vaguely remember being almost ok with that. So I draw this picture in an abstractive expressionist’s style and can remember feeling quite chuffed with this piece of art I had created. The facilitator walked around and stopped at me. I explained to her what my memory was and pointing at a figure central to the image she said “Who’s that?” “That’s me” I reply. “So you’re remembering your memory, not through your own eyes but through your own eyes!!” “Well….yeah, my future eyes I guess.” How bizarre. I put myself outside of the memory and had looked at it with me actually in it! Apparently this is a common thing and there’s probably a name for it but don’t expect me to cite the research. It’s also interesting to note that apart from the main point of the above story/memory, most other details may not be true if for no other reason than I don’t actually remember all the little details. I don’t actually recall if the facilitator was male or female, or that the conversation went exactly like that. And I never worked in Defence, it was actually in Education and it probably wasn’t the world’s biggest bonfire, but the alternative sounds a bit boring doesn’t it, even though the main point of the story is exactly the same.
Your story, my story
Going back to the earlier theory about recalling memories from the last time you told the story. Apparently each time we recall it, we change it slightly, so that each time it’s remembered and retold, it’s slightly different. And we believe it! It’s Chinese Whispers with our own memories.
I’ll give you an example. It was the early 1990s and I was studying at Charles Sturt University in Bathurst and nearly everyone I knew went to the very first Big Day Out in Sydney. All my peers were talking about Nirvana and grunge and I could have got tickets but for one reason or another I was too stoned. A group of student friends had started a band, The Daisygrinders, and they had scored a gig at this very same BDO. Everyone came back raving about the day, the fun and the music. Nirvana of course went on to make it big and The Daisy’s experienced some minor indi success and released a couple of CDs. For weeks, months and years later people were still talking about it. I even worked with a guy in Sydney who had snuck in and was up close enough to Nirvana that he grabbed a handful of Kurt Cobain’s hair and nearly ripped him off stage. I heard so many stories from that day that I started to repeat them as if they were my own.
The older I get, the cooler I was…
A few years later, university was over and many of us were slogging it out in Sydney. Catching up for a drink and this particular BDO gets mentioned. “Yeah, I went”. I hear myself saying. “Bullshit” says my mate. I recall looking at him thinking “he’s not bought it” but realise it’s one of those “Get out of here” ‘Bullshit’s’. “Yeah, it was mad, saw the Daisy’s, even stage-dived and saw Nirvana. Man we were so close this dickhead mate of mine grabbed a handful of Kurt’s hair. We got so wasted…”
I do remember feeling guilty about my stretching… well lying actually, but then I thought, who am I hurting? Anyway, I remember after a few more years had passed and still in touch with the above person, this BDO comes up again. “You went didn’t you Mario?” Well, I had to think about it. Did I? Didn’t I? I didn’t know anymore but I had to keep up the façade, blaming alcohol and other substances for the missing minor details. Over the years it’d come up occasionally until I myself believed me. It’s only recently that I’ve accepted the fact that I didn’t go to the first Big Day Out. But I still feel like I did.
There’s a few other stories in which actual attendances are vague. Some have been told over and over again by the same friends that it’s easy to believe you were there. Especially those great stories that (everyone says) could only happen to you. Sometimes in the retelling it’s just easier to say it happened to you rather than a friend, same diff, as long as it actually happened and sometimes it’s just that you’ve heard it so many times that you feel like you must have been there. I’ve even had old friends convince me I was somewhere and part of their particular story when I’ve been certain I hadn’t been. Some I just blame on memory loss through years of cranial abuse. Others are the stuff of urban legend and might just have indeed happened to a “friend of a friend of mine.” Although I never turned around to the see my boyfriend’s head on a stick, that was someone else.
Stepping lightly past the truth
Then of course there’s that great story you always tell, one in which you were actually there, where an incident occurred, except this time you tell it to a group that includes someone else who was there and they dispute the facts or highlight different aspects to your story. This can be confronting especially if facts are being massaged but also interesting in hearing the same story from a different perspective. Like seeing a sports replay from a different camera angle or watching a movie from your childhood and finally getting the “adult” concepts. Lately, memories come into my head and I hear myself saying, “Did that happen or did I dream that?” Believe me, after 40, the lines between fact and fiction get blurred.
We sometimes lie about things we wished we had done. My couple of years getting wasted in Europe became a “Culinary Tour” under professional development on my Curriculum Vitae. I even for some unknown reason started throwing in that I’d worked in Belgium for fucks sake. Why? I don’t know but one thing’s for sure, not many people know a lot about Belgium but they all want to know if they think you’ve been there. Am I concerned that there are people out there who because of my lies think Belgium has flesh eating bacteria in their water or that Tripe Fricassee is their national dish? No, as hopefully this puts them off enough to never visit and hence my charade continues. I could easily Google ‘Belgium’s national dish’ but then that goes against what I said before.
I don’t know, I wasn’t there
Then of course there are those stories retold time and time again by our significant others. You know the ones that when you hear that old familiar beginning you groan inside. Each time another “fact” slightly embellished. You want to jump in to correct moments, if you were there, or switch off so you can’t hear it again if you weren’t. I’ve heard too many marching girl stories; in the latest edition apparently she won Nationals. And being an “expert” on Haley’s Comet (having seen it back in the mid 1980s), in recent re-tellings she caught a ride on its tail!! (Sorry darling, I did exaggerate there).
My daughter, who obviously inherited the bullshit artist gene from her father, spends some of her spare time answering ‘wikiHow’ questions with elaborate but believable stories. The same daughter catches me out stretching the truth by saying, “Do you promise that happened?” and you know what? I can’t promise it happened and the ruse is up.
Hilary Clinton adopts alien baby
Now of course there’s ‘Fake News’ to contend with. When I was younger I loved reading Weekly World News with their bizarre stories about Elvis working in a 7/11 and aliens. Back then it was well known and obviously satirical, but these days the scenarios are delivered deadpan and are easy to believe.
My issue with the concept of fake news is that it sets out to deceive whereas the art of embellishment is about making a good story better. A bit like the classic “If I’ve told you once, I’ve told you a million times…” line obviously exaggerates.
A good way to ensure journalistic embellishment is to give someone a deadline. Firstly they’ll lie about why they need a little bit more time and secondly (and because of being under the pump), they’ll most like embellish the story to make the word count and let’s face it, make the piece more entertaining. And I’m all for that but I can’t promise that’s what happened.
Finally, I usually provide a photo to accompany my story but have decided to embellish the piece further with a piece of absurdist art from our collection. ‘Jabberwocky’, 2016, oil on linen, 60 x 90cm, by Nicholas Ives. Inspired by this work and in the spirit of fake news, I’ll end this piece with a ‘warning’ by Lewis Carroll, an obvious piece of delightful nonsense:
‘Beware the Jabberwock, my son!
The jaws that bite, the claws that catch!
Beware the Jubjub bird, and shun
The frumious Bandersnatch!’
Mario Varricchio is co-proprietor of arts-focussed café ‘happymaree’ in Yarraville. He cooks, he writes, he draws and is the taker of photos. He also talks.