Selective memory and memoirs.

(NaNoWriMo cheerleading post for November 18 – comment on this post if you would like me to address a specific topic)

Many NaNoWriMo participants are writing memoirs. A memoir purports to be true.  It is a recollection of some important part of the writer’s life – whether public or private event, life experience, relationship, or recurring theme – and tells a story.

Story is the important thing here.  No matter how intense your experience and how photographic your memories feel, you are not laying down facts like railroad ties when you write a memoir.  You are selecting memories and you’re probably – very probably – making stuff up.  Not only that, everyone around you remembers the events differently, even if they were there.

Because memory does not work like a camera, psychologists have found.  Instead, it’s more like “whisper down the lane.”  Every time we call up a memory, we tell and re-tell ourselves what happened, and when we store the memory, we store the retelling.

Don’t trust your memory.

At my mother’s skilled nursing community before she died, a volunteer met with her to help her write her autobiography.  When they finished, I got a copy.  It was a lovely thing, very moving and honest, and it was full of inaccuracies and flat-out fantasies.  Reading it was like negotiating a smooth road full of potholes, because every time I started to enjoy it something jolted me and my head rocked back.

And I get things wrong myself, even though I’m compulsive about documenting.  Back in the 90s, I was in graduate school. I did two years of field work in classrooms, taking notes in shorthand of my observations and recording every conversation.   I had several file bins full of data and analysis.

Toward the end of my data analysis, in a conversation with one of the teachers I had been observing, the teacher made a comment that flipped all my tentative conclusions on their head.  I had to go back through all my notes to rewrite my analysis completely.  It was terrifying and great.

I defended with honors and graduated, and my dissertation was bound and placed in the university library.  But in a conversation with that teacher about the comment later on that year, she said, “I guess I said that.  I don’t really remember,” and threw a little polite shade on my conclusions.  You can believe I had a week or so of terror that I had gotten everything wrong, until I re-read the dissertation and realized I had backed up every assertion at least three ways.

You can see where I’m going.  Even with all the documentation in the world, even if you wrote a detailed journal at the time of the events you are narrating, even if everyone around you agrees with your version, your memoir is a story.  You are picking events and putting them in an order, with your narration, to make a point.

Therefore, select your memories carefully.  Someone you know is going to have a different recollection of what happened.  If you aren’t sure, ask someone who was there what they remember. And then: Go ahead and write your version, but remember it’s a story.  Your story.

Tomorrow: Starting over every day.*

*Up until today, I was ahead of my November NaNoWriMo blog posts by at least one and sometimes two entries, and I was scheduling my blog posts using WordPress so that they posted automatically.  This one is being finished five minutes before my deadline.  Whee!

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