Sunday, December 12, 2010

The Road to Remembering: How Do You Recall Accurate Memories for Your Memoir?

Judy, a reader from Minnesota, sent me a very good question about her manuscript:

"I took your class this summer on 'how to write a book' at the Loft Literary Center.  I am working on the second revision of my story and remember so little about the time when I was at the home for unwed mothers.  I didn’t think about it much after I left, so the memory kind of withered.  Much has come back to life with recall and thinking and writing but my question is like this: I have used dialogue and setting to recreate the feelings I had at the home.  This part of my story feels like fiction although it all could very well have been said or seen.  For instance, I don’t know if it was a sunny or rainy day… so how do I create story when I don’t have the solid memory details but want to stay genuine and true?  Could you offer some help on this topic?"

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.


  1. Excellent post! In my work as an embodied imagination coach, I work deeply with images through the memories and dreams clients share with me. Your description of what happens with the images that accompany memory and their connection to deeper truths is completely in sync with my own experiences.

    In Robert Bosnak's book Embodiment - Creative Imagination in Medicine, Art and Travel, he goes further, describing images as living presences that come with their own integrity and intelligence. That describes what I have observed in working with the images that present themselves while working with memories. When I treat these images as partners in the creative process, that have their own reasons for coming forward at that particular time, then I find myself able to write fluidly with a sense of discovery. However, when I focus on images as static historical facts, then all the life goes out of them and the work comes to a standstill, exactly as you described in the example with the roses.

    Over the years, I have learned that I can only find the truth that the image carries if I am willing to stay with the image as it presents itself. I do this by focusing on the sensory aspects of an image. I take a phenomenological approach, staying with the image as it presents itself and describing that experience. Only then, over time, can I discover the deeper emotional and other truths that are embodied within an image. When I trust the images and work with them as they are, I am able to have a deeply satisfying and meaningful relationship with them that is then able to enliven the creative work we do together.

    Thank you for the inspiration,
    Sheila Asato in VERY snowy Minnesota, USA

  2. Thanks for this exercise Mary. I did the same thing that your student did about her grandmother. I wrote a scene about the first and only time my sister and I visited our mother in the hospital before she died. My sister said it was our second visit. I have no recollection of that at all. As many times as I have tried to make something come to my head, it's just not there. I only remember going once. My sister was younger, so I don't know that her memory is any more valid than mine :-) but I did the same thing your student did, started doubting myself... and I still wonder if we went twice and why I can't remember anything.

  3. Thanks for this beautiful reply, Sheila. So insightful!

    Stay warm!

  4. Lynn,

    Stick with your memories--they are true to you and important for your writing. I struggle with this also, the doubt of whether I'm remembering true. But I've learned to trust it. And the trust builds more confidence in my own voice as a writer, over time.

    Thanks for posting!

  5. Thanks, Kimberly! Hope you're staying warm. . .