A nonfiction or memoir writer has to navigate a complex relationship to memory. It isn’t reliable, not just sometimes, but never. Even as experiences are happening, we are already modifying them to fit into some framework of association, expectation and interpretation to make sense out of them in relation to past experience and learning. There’s no problem with this if you accept it, but if you expect someone else to confirm what you remember to be true, you may be sorely disappointed.
As a hypnotherapist, I have long been aware of the mystery of memory. In this profession, we talk about false memory syndrome. For example, with the best of intentions, we try to pinpoint what actually happened to us in childhood. But the feeling and sensing impressions of the event may alter or prioritize the details that remain with us. Of course from my point of view, what has remained and left an impression is what shaped your beliefs and responses, so whether your description of the incident is perfect or not, your feelings are always important to explore and respect.
On a more everyday level, have you ever had a “you said-I said” argument with someone, and were shocked that the other person only remembered only an incidental phrase you said that hurt his feelings. He didn’t even register the whole rest of the conversation. You remember all the understanding and empathetic things you said. Oh dear, we don’t hear with our ears, we hear with our memories! If there is already a prior hurt place, it’s like the bruise on your leg that you keep accidentally bumping against the chair. The other person’s words have a way of bumping the bruised memory.
I heard an interview on the radio this morning with artist/sculptor Richard Serra. His mammoth steel installations were at the Metropolitan Museum in NY this summer, and have just opened at SF MOMA. Yay for that! Michael Krasney referred to his work as connected to memory and Serra said that he thought all memory was fictive (I guess that means fictional). It caught my attention. Yes, we are very creative. We take the elements of experience, then shape and connect them through a creative process that is subjective.
To make it more personal, I am doing some last revisions (maybe next to last) on “The Woman in the Photograph.” It is a creative memoir and the main character, my mother, is not here to tell me what she thought or felt. The best memoir writing I can do is show you the scene as I recall it, and let you bring your own subjective experience into it, let you decide what she is feeling. Then it isn’t my book anymore. Then it is yours because it has drawn you into your own memories and is using them to relate to the story.
This writing is quite a process. I have to close with an old Jewish saying mentioned by Isabel Allende in one of her TED talks.
“What is truer than truth?” “The story.”
Send me an experience you’ve had with the mystery of memory.