01 | Just Start Telling The Story

It is the process of storytelling rather than the story itself that is the point. What excited Sarah Polley about making a documentary about her mother was watching the aftermath.

~Sarah Polley | Filmmaker

If there’s a story you like, just write it up and see how it feels. It’s not illegal until you do something with it.

~Alan Sharp | Screenwriter

My story begins on a hot Saturday morning in June 1973. The phone rang in the flat I shared with my fiancé in Boulder. I picked up because Doug was in the shower. It was his mother, Betty. She’d never called before, and this call was awkward and brief. Doug and I were getting married in two weeks and didn’t know if she was coming. Two hours later she was dead.

I thought about that phone call for thirty years. Every night I ran through my exchange with Betty and the events that followed. Sometimes it was the first thing on my mind when I woke up.I didn’t want to forget. Even more than needing to understand her death, it was important to remember the details. In 2001 I published Quiet Time, a fictionalized version of Betty’s murder. The nightmares stopped.

Then in 2005 I got an e-mail from a cold case cop who was looking into Betty’s murder. He asked if I was willing to talk. I’d long since come to terms with not knowing the truth about that day but had never resolved my role in it. But this was bigger than me. The legal battle that followed consumed the next decade of my life.

Forty-five years have passed since Betty’s call. From a college-town flat to a karate studio to a blood-spattered suburban garage, to a rogue ex-cop, law school, a mystery novel, grand jury indictments, subpoenas for a manuscript’s drafts, trips up and down appellate courts, to a family irreparably fractured and turned on itself. And at the heart of it, a brutal murder.

This blog is about the stories we tell to figure out who we are, and the lies we spin to live with ourselves or save our skin. Justice seeks truth. What happens when fantasies and fiction collide with a cold hard crime and with a system designed to avenge it? Just as we cycle between fiction and truth to make meaning of our lives, fiction can also shape truth and in the process have real world consequences.

A cold case exhumes an old story. It digs up the bones and uses them to tell the story anew. The justice system is a lousy stand-in for a murder victim. Besides showing how truth is hijacked when a killer’s freedom is at stake, Betty’s story exposes how malleable facts are and how the system itself warps and reshapes them. Stories, after all, are only human.

What stories do you tell yourself? If you rewrite them, what could happen?

I welcome your feedback and will respond privately.