Retouching the past

Retouching the past: Is it helping you tell your story or is it changing your story?

We’re in an age of retouched photos. We remove blemishes and correct lighting and exposure. We can even remove wrinkles, whiten teeth, and eliminate extra chins. We can… But should we?

Retouching the Past or Telling Who We Are?

When we write our memories and stories, retouching the past is tempting—maybe even necessary. Retouching stories, just like re-touching photos, can be a way of drawing attention to what really matters and eliminating extraneous details. Unless it’s integral to the story, maybe we can leave out that Miss May had three hairs growing out of the mole at the side of her nose and that each hair grew in a different direction.

Where to stop retouching the past is particularly critical as we describe loved one’s character. Do we need to say that Aunt Erma was testy? Do we need to add that Grandma was bossy and overly critical?

It depends.

The answer lies in your personal balancing act. Does a story have to be accurate in every detail to represent your “truth”? How strongly do you feel about telling your story versus maintaining peace and tranquility in the family? As you strive to achieve that balance, here are a few helpful considerations.

Retouching the past removing background

Are you sharpening your focus or does retouching the past remove context?

Fine-tuning versus retouching

Sometimes, retouching means transforming. It’s appealing, but it’s not actually the truth. How heavy of a brush do you use while retouching the past? Is your brush helping loved ones to connect with the characters of your past, or is it hindering the process?

Recently Buzzfeed covered a provocative story of four women being photoshopped into cover models. The women were disappointed with the final results of their photo shoots: “Once you take away your imperfections, there’s not much left of who you really are.”

The same goes for our stories.

Physical appearance

Focusing on physical allure leaves out all sorts of important details about a personality. Rather than rating someone’s attractiveness, describe his or her appeal.

Perhaps grandma wasn’t a conventional beauty, but there was an openness and warmth to her face. Perhaps cousin Sid had so many laugh lines that making him smile made you feel like you’d achieved something for the day. You get the idea. You’re not so much retouching the past as fine-tuning your focus.

Retouching the Past versus Filtering the Stories You Tell

You can avoid the need to retouch the past by your story choices. If you pick the stories that most encapsulate your loved one’s personality, loved ones can connect with the character that you remember.

As we choose what we want to write, we filter for representative nuggets—much like panning for gold. We all have crabby days or dark periods—and those aren’t the days we want our loved ones to remember. If a particular story is an anomaly, you might consider holding back until you’ve written about the personality you remember.

Although some might think that omissions are just as much “untruths” as outright lies are, only you can draw that line. For most of us, that line is going to be indicative of how we feel looking back at our past. Perhaps your grandfather had a couple of bad episodes, but looking back, you mostly remember afternoons fishing together or learning to hunt on his farm. It’s fine to choose to tell the typical memories first.

Retouching painful episodes

That balancing act I mentioned above becomes even more critical as you address individual episodes. It’s something that I go into more detail about in my book. As you find your way, remember, there’s not a “right” answer. There’s just your answer.

Your Turn:

How have you drawn the line between retouching or transforming? Comment below; I’d love to hear your thoughts!