Writing MemoriesPosted: March 26, 2008
John at An Embarrassment of Riches posted an entry on March 24 titled “Navigating Family and Shared Memories.” It’s good reading for creative nonfiction writers engaged in peeling back the years and layers of their lives, going deep, and writing about experiences that shaped them. “Are we going to remember every event exactly as others may remember it?” he asks. “Our perception is everything, and the way we perceive and remember is the way we acquire truth.”
“Unfortunately, our minds do not etch every moment into stone for us. We forget things,” John continues. “We change colors, sights, sounds. We may add elements that weren’t there. We may blend one or two memories together, remembering them as one. I ask, is that wrong? In my opinion it’s not. I think you have to have an honest relationship with your readers. For me, it’s about admitting that I don’t have everything down perfectly, which I’m happy to do.”
For me, those early memories are snapshots — not real photographs taped to the pages of an album or dumped in a dilapidated cardboard box — but images in my mind, or frozen frames, of happenings in my early years that had an impact on my life. They seem to be in black-and-white, not color. I remember what I perceived — what I saw, touched, smelled, heard, how I felt. I may remember what Mama said about them years later. The details might have been recorded in a small, shiny, square photograph. All combined, I’m left with an impression — a strong effect produced on my feelings and intellect.
Now I’m making a story of that impression. It’s a personal story, but it must also be a public story, relevant to others. In relating my story, I am bound to the truth. Truth is achieved through describing the impression a person, place, or event left on me, thinking about how that fits in with other impressions and historical facts of the Time and Place, including specific details I remember … and through research, sticking in a few intimate details, legitimate and real.
For example, in my childhood story about venturing to “The Big Woods,” a circular patch of jungle in the middle of a cottonpatch south of town, I describe the vines that hang from trees thick as hairs on a dog’s back, I describe marshy puddles with colors of florescent purple and yellow. Fellow writer Sarah Einstein said, “I want to know what kind of trees were there. I’m thinking there might be bald cypress, and I want to know that.” It struck me, because I am usually careful with those kinds of details, but my memory is only of tall, thick, gnarled trunks rising straight up to the light. I don’t remember leaves at all! I have no clue what kinds of trees were in this thicket and wouldn’t have been able to identify them at the age of ten anyway. Dinty W. Moore says that through research of what trees were native to the area and were most prominent in the early days when the Mississippi Delta was settled, I can legitimately provide those details for the reader. These kinds of details give depth and create a better picture for the reader, letting the reader hang on to something specific and be more involved in the scene.
As John says, I should be honest and careful with my readers, letting them know that this ladder to Truth came through careful reconstruction and while it may not be exact, it fits with my memory, as well as with the reality of Time and Place.
John explains it further. “I’m trying to capture my impressions of childhood. The impressions my memories left on me. As much as I’m a writer, I’m an archaeologist, sifting through the dirt of my past. I’m reconstructing the people, places, and things that stood up around me at varying points throughout my childhood. Just as an archaeologist must get by reassembling the past with cracked bones, pulverized bones, or no bones at all, I must do the best to construct my past from the memories I have.”