Writers of memoir need to be factually accurate. Aside from your personal ethics as a writer, this has been made abundantly clear by agents and publishers in the past few years, as nightmares such as James Frey's A Million Little Pieces and Herman Rosenblat's Angel at the Fence, which made it to Oprah before it was pulled from production, have embarrassed the industry. Publishers have gotten savvy, and I hear more stories now about background-checkers at major houses who make sure the facts are true before accepting a memoir. If you fake an urban ghetto childhood or a romance across concentration camp wire, you're bound to be found out.
But what about emotional truth? What about the small details of how an operating room smelled forty years ago or whether it was raining when your son left for college? A question that is debating frequently among memoir writers, this line is the sand is yours to draw.
I respect the writing of memoirist and essayist Patricia Hampl. Her collection, I Could Tell You Stories, was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle award. She writes that memory is " ‘an attempt.’ It is a try at the truth. The truth of a self in the world."
Each memoirist will decide for herself where that line sits in the sand. I have published two memoirs and wrote about childhood experiences as well as ones from my adult years. When I was unsure of a setting detail, I did my best to revisit the location and take notes to remind myself. Often this is enough to trigger the past memory and bring in a rush of information. Another writer suggested, when I was struggling with accurate recall, to focus in my memory on one small detail of the setting, such as the floor of a room. I found this worked very well. I thought about the floor in my grandmother's kitchen and could immediately see the speckled colors of its ancient linoleum.
I had my basic facts of each story, each scene. Things that weren't in question. I had to grow to trust my emotional memory as well. What did I feel that day, what did my senses take in, and can I paint a broader view with some contemplation, some traveling back to that past, some research, and above all, some renewed trust in my ability to remember?
Trust Your Ability to Remember
Not trusting their memories causes big problems with memoirists.
A student was writing the story of her grandmother's untimely death, which caused an upheaval in the family. This happened when she was nine, and it was very hard to say which details she really remembered and which she believed she was inventing out of desperation to have something on the page.
This writer wanted to be honest in her writing. She thought long and hard about the day of the funeral and finally a detail emerged: the thick and cloying smell of bright pink roses set in huge vases near the casket. So she wrote a draft of a scene for her memoir, focusing on the moment when she tried approaching the casket that held her beloved grandmother, but the noxious smell of those roses caused her to gag and run to the bathroom.
She liked the scene but as she thought more about those roses, she wondered if the fleeting memory was really true. After all, she was nine. Maybe she gagged because she'd never seen a dead body before. So my student decided to run it by her sister, an older and wiser (although opinionated) member of the family.
"They weren't roses, Grandma hated roses," the sister proclaimed. "Lilies is what Mom ordered."
What did this writer do? Believe her own faint recall, so thin it felt quite unsubstantial against her sister's certainty?
She caved. Not only that, but it created a dilemma that stalled her writing. Suddenly, the memories that were quietly flowing into her mind and onto the page every day ceased. The Inner Critic began to create such havoc that she couldn't write a word. Not about the funeral scene, not about anything. The possible inaccuracy of flowers caused her to even doubt her integrity as a person.
It sounds ridiculous, but it wasn't at all. You laugh, because no one would ever do this. Actually many writers have. The story above is not unique. In my memoir-writing classes, I hear this question of memory more often than any other. And I hear about the resulting stall-outs when the trust in oneself dies.
My belief is that you need to keep writing through these small details. Trust what comes to you as you write, even if it's the fleeting memory of roses at a funeral. As you begin to listen inside to such details, you'll begin to remember more of them. Memory is an awakening of inner perception, in my experience. It takes practice to build the trust but once you do, you don't care if your sister remembers lilies. For you, the truth was roses.
Abigail Thomas, author of the memoir Three Dog Life, wrote a handy little writing book called Thinking About Memoir. In it, she talks about memoir as a journey of discovery from where you were then to where you are now.
The journey is the thing that is the most important. Put down the details you remember, as best you can. Research what you can't remember. And begin to cultivate your own trust in your memory of the roadsigns along the way.
Judy might want to start with what she can't quite recall. Put in a sunny day, even if you don't really remember that. Then keep writing the scene. Test the faint memory of sunshine against the emerging event. See if glimpses come through to verify it. Maybe you suddenly remember light striping across a person's sleeping face from the sun coming through slanted blinds. You've now proven your initial memory of sunshine.
It's a technique you train into yourself: the ability to recall, to bring back images. These images are the basis for your emotional truth, which is the foundation of the discovery in your story. And it's the discovery, the revelation of you as a person who learned something about yourself and the world around you, that the reader will follow.
This Week's Writing Exercise
1. Go into quiet inside yourself and put attention on a scene from childhood. Begin to construct the setting details that you remember.
2. Write them down. Trust them as they come forward, even if you're not entirely sure of their accuracy.
3. Say to yourself, "If I could remember, what would I see?" Write down one or two visual details that come to mind.
4. Then ask yourself, "What am I not remembering hearing?" Write whatever comes.
5. Finally ask, "What is the smell I don't want to remember about that day?" Write.