On Writing and Memory

I am trying to start a new book, another memoir. This is an exciting endeavor but I’ve gotten stuck on the problem, a perennial one I imagine, of how much does one really remember, and how much does the mind “make up,” that is, remember improperly? I know that some writers of autobiography — to my mind a more stringent form, requiring research and some historical context –and memoir make the claim that every word they have written is factually accurate, to the extent that they have checked each one against the memories and records of others. Then there are the infamous ones who have played so fast and loose with the truth as to have lost all semblance of it. These have produced literary scandals (as well as books that probably earned their authors much more income than if they had actually stuck to the facts) and more or less short-lived discourses by the punditry on the nature of truth and memory: what can we really know? Since I am something of a sucker I tend to take both of these at their words, when in fact I daresay that neither of them ought to be. True enough, the one has done more work than the other, and has made an honest effort to search for the “real facts” in his or her history, but my question is this: Can it be done, one, and two, why should the collective memories of say, ten people chosen by the author (biassed) be more “objectively real” than the simple truth of what the author herself remembers? Yes, you might build up a larger group of pieces-of-the-elephant if you have ten blind people who feel only one part. But unless you have someone who knows how the pieces fit together, you still only have elephant pieces…And so ten pieces are no better than the one in the end.

What I am saying is this: the author, the person who lived the life has to be the one to make sense of it. She might have a thousand “elephant pieces” — memories given her by ten people, yes, or only her own memories but in the end she must construct what the elephant – her life–looked like out of them. In some sense, there are facts and there are facts, but the work, and the life, and the living is all in the interpretation; always was and always will be.

That said, I am having trouble getting started, because I don’t know whether I want to use more “objective” sources or evidence this time, or not. I am perfectly comfortable using what is close at hand: my journals, my photos, the people I can easily consult. And I do feel very uncomfortable with mining deeper records: I do not particularly want to see what is written on my hospital charts during months-long stays when I was ranting and screaming for days, or engaging in outrageous behaviors like taking a dump on the floor of the seclusion room, or disrobing and…I can scarcely bear to think I did such things, frankly, and do not want to read what was written about me at the time, knowing nothing can be corrected or updated to show them the “new me”. A sad fact about hospital records and workers: they only see you when you are at your worst; they rarely get to know if you get better. Much less get to know you when you are well. And if you ever wanted to sit down and tell them what was actually going through your brain at the time they believed XYZ, but in fact QRS was happening, well, forget it.

So, I am loathe to overturn those stones, growing mossy as they nearly are now, some four years later. It pains me even to bring my mind across the memories of them. I have no wish to flagellate myself. My own journals say little, but it’s about all that I want to know. At the same time, my own brow-beating conscience tells me, NO, you must do what you do not want to do. The very fact that you do not want to do it means that you should. No pain, no gain—

Oh, I just go on and on. I would make this next book a torture to me, nothing of pleasure at all, just to serve my scruples. Be gone! If the writing is only to torture me, why do it? I’d be better off with my artwork and sculpture. But writing nurtures me, so long as I do not let my illness turn it into a punishment. Is there any need for me to use the historical records in telling the tale of my life? Did my first book lose anything in my not doing so? I would change a lot in DIVIDED MINDS, if I could go back and do so — add scenes here, take out one or two, most certainly make better transitions — but except for appending a much clearer discussion of this very issue, and also a better disclaimer, I wouldn’t change the way we wrote it.

So I might have talked myself to a place from which I can start, allowing myself the freedom not to have to delve into the official records or consult professionals involved in my care unless I am currently in treatment with them.

Your past after all resides as much in what you remember as it does in anything documented. You are mostly what you remember, and what you remember is sculpted by time and changes over time. If you think your memories remain the same, read back in a diary you haven’t read before, and recover the accounting of a incident you thought you’d recalled with accuracy…You’ll see how inaccurate your “memory” was and how formative this memory had been nevertheless. Then remember that the accounting is itself a memory, tainted by emotion and interpretation and consider those “ten people with their elephant pieces” who tried to give you objective memories of your history. Were they truly objective? Were their memories, even collectively, any more factual and objective than your memories?

In the end, memory is fiction, as someone once wrote in The New Yorker magazine, memory is, well, made up, not real, imagined. I agree, but it is all we have. Literally. Without memory we would be without anything at all, no culture, no civilization, no nuthin’. So let’s not pretend that the fact that memory is fiction isn’t critical. We need memory, and memory is, well, fundamentally untrustworthy, which is why we need thinking, and thinkers and writers to interpret history and memory… Memory is the most important thing we have, the most important attribute we can impart to anything: in almost every sense of the word, when we remember something we keep it alive. Maybe not literally, but then again, it is memory that keeps a conversation going on longer than five minutes. If you forgot what you were talking about ten minutes ago, or to whom you were speaking, nothing much would get said…

3 thoughts on “On Writing and Memory”

  1. Hello, Pam,
    Excellent discussion of memory, which can be such a tricky subject. Over time I think we’re learning more and more about memory — how it works and how fragile it can be.
    Bill

  2. Hi Pam,

    Happy New Year to you!

    Memory is a tricky subject, a tricky entity. For you, I guess it all depends on what incidents you want to concentrate on in your memoir. I don’t think you need to be slavishly dedicated to finding all the facts, just the ones that relate to your particular tale. I think using your journals and blogs and listening to those people who are close to you is the right start.

    But what is it you want to emphasize in your memoir? Poking into some of those unpleasant memories might furnish the right contrast to your ultimate success in becoming a published writer and artist. But only up to a point, after all you only need a few examples. The bulk need not be so unpleasant.

    Memory. I’ve lost a lot of my memories, but I still have the feeling that some of them are accessible if I could just be patient enough. I, too, have thought that it is not possible to recreate a life on paper unless you take a creative license. The main thing is that you are striving to be honest in your work.

    Kate : )

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