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Tuesday, April 12, 2011

On Writing, Perspective, and Eyewitness Testimony

I was re-thinking my blog yesterday.  One phrase in particular kept going through my head:  “orgiastic bacchanalia of drunken revelry.”  I used that phrase, among others, to describe the annual motorcycle rally in Sturgis, South Dakota. 
Shortly after I posted the blog, I started to question myself.  Does “orgiastic” mean what I think it does?  What about “bacchanalia"?  (And why do you put quotation marks inside a question mark but outside a comma or period?)  So I took out my Merriam-Webster and looked up both words.  This is what M-W had to say:
Orgiastic:  (1) of, relating to, or marked by orgies (2) characterized by unrestrained emotion: frenzied.
So far, so good.  Then I looked up “bacchanalia”:
Bacchanalia:  Roman festival of Bacchus celebrated with dancing, song, and revelry.  (Bacchus is the Greek God of wine.)
That’s what I wanted to convey, all right.  Of course, it wasn't necessary to follow “orgiastic bacchanalia” with “drunken revelry.”  My description is effusively redundant, but that captures the atmosphere of Sturgis at rally time.  Or so I imagine it to be.  

Writing is an inexact art, as I suppose all art is.  Not all writing is supposed to be creative, of course, and you could argue that if you’re writing about something that really happened (i.e., nonfiction), you should stick soberly to the facts.  But it’s also a fact that emotion and perspective are woven into the memory of an event. 
Consider eyewitness testimony.  Why our legal system continues to place so much weight on eyewitness testimony is perplexing, considering how unreliable it is.  When I worked for law firms, my job sometimes involved interviewing witnesses.  I was amazed that their descriptions of the exact same event were often completely different and even contradictory. 
Yesterday I based my entire blog on one conversation that took place in a corner of the kitchen at my husband's birthday party.  Maybe a half dozen people were present at this conversation, taking an active part or just listening.  I’m sure their recollections of the same conversation would be different from mine, depending on what resonated with them.  Of course, dozens of conversations took place throughout the evening, and a blog could perhaps be written about any one of them.  You could probably write a whole book about one single party, and I’m sure it’s been done.  And each person there would write a different book. 
Writing involves not only deciding what to write about, but what to leave out.  You can’t include it all.  The result would be unfocused and not very interesting.  You just write from your own unique perspective.  What else can you do?  That's all you’ve got to work with.   

So when you think about it, it's no wonder that eyewitness testimony is so individual, and, therefore, “unreliable.”   


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