Monday, January 3, 2011

Are You a Memoirist or a Novelist? More Ruminations on Proust, Memory, and Writing the Truth

I received an eloquent email from a reader in New York, who had some thoughts on my recent post on memory and truth.  I am sharing it in its entirety below, hopefully to stimulate some discussion among readers and at least get you thinking (and possibly researching on your own) the ever-changing and fascinating field of brain science and how it applies to us who are writing books.

I get this question so often in my classes:  How can I accurately write memories that happened when I was very young?  What do I do to keep myself honest?  And the most important one:    Am I really writing a novel, not a memoir?  

In my earlier post (search "Memory" in the Search box above right to read more), I talked about the difference between factual truth and emotional truth.  This reader takes it one step further, into how our brains actually recall memories.  And how accurate that recall really is.   

When I asked her permission to share her email, my reader added this cavaet:  "Please reiterate that this is just one of the many theories going around.  The whole field of neurology is just exploding with ideas and conjectures.  Really creative stuff going on."

* * *
According to one of the latest neurological theories, there is no such thing as a "pure" memory. Each time you remember something your brain changes from the sheer act of recall. 

The theory is that your neurons make new synaptic connections with each recall. To my thinking that means you could get a strange regression of any remembered event, e.g., first the memory of the event, then the recall of it which changes the brain and thus the  memory, then the recall of the recall which changes things even more, ad infinitum. 

So the more you "work" on writing about a memory, the more it will change.

That said, what remains puzzling (and what I am working on) is why certain memories feel as if they are "fixed."  Why those particular memories and not others? And what is going on with this strange feeling of "fixed?" Why don’t they “change” even though we recall them often?  My thinking so far is that it’s not the memory that is fixed so much as  the meaning behind it, e.g. this is the memory that formed my thinking about being x,y,z, or this is the memory that changed my mind about x,y,z. The fixed memory acts as a kind of place holder for the feeling of the self as it forms. It’s not the memory that is important so much as the feeling/meaning behind it. Most folks just keep retelling those “fixed” memory/stories over and over again because they are so compelling (no matter how dull they are to our listeners) but they rarely dig behind them to learn why. 

Case in point is Proust.  A lot of hapless memoirists (myself included) think all we have to do is find the right cookie to dunk in the lime tea and our childhood memories will come back perfect and whole. Not true. What came back for Proust was an involuntary memory that created an almost existential feeling of nostalgia for a childhood place that he had not consciously thought about in years.  But when he took that first bite of the cookie, his memory of the place came back on its own complete with exact details. 

However, when he started to write about it, things got slippery. He would write and rewrite and edit and purge, and write again. I think what intrigued him was how memory "grew" once he started writing. Consequently, he would change something in volume 2 based on what he was writing in volume  6. Does that make what he wrote in volume 2 was a lie? No. It makes him a novelist.  

The reason he is a novelist and not a memoirist is that he was after much more than the actual factual/historical events. He was after memory itself and how we write about it. Thus he was rewriting right up until he died. 

The moral of the story.... no work on memoir is ever truly "done," it can only be abandoned.

This Week's Writing Exercise
Consider the ideas that this reader shares.  How do they pertain to your writing, your beliefs about memory and truth in books?  Share your thoughts and comments, if you like. 


  1. In my memoir-in-progress, I recalled (with poetic license) my first memory of looking up a flight of stairs to where our landlady was pounding on her ceiling to keep us kids quiet. In my memory, the stairs were to my left and the living room was to the right. Last year, for the first time in over 60 years, I visited the old apartment and discovered the stairs were really on the right. Not that it matters, but how can memories be mirror images? Is it because I was only two years old and my brain hemispheres later swapped duties somehow?

  2. Excellent comment/question, Jack. Any readers want to add their insights?

  3. After my high school reunion last September, three of my classmates (2 guys, 1 gal) got together because we grew up on the same block only a few houses from each other. We are swapping stories and email photos with the help of our siblings adding their viewpoints. As each of us add a detail, the others say "I remember that" yet we didn't until someone brought it up. Therefore, I am finding our memories are fluid and filed away to our liking. It has been fun comparing my individual memories to the group ones and I have discovered I am not infallible. Now I am doubting my recollections.

    I am still pondering that probably there isn't one truth when an experience involves more than one person because each individual uniquely processes and remembers differently. Therefore, are all of us operating under select memory? Just my thought for the day.

  4. Good thoughts, Carole. I agree that there isn't one way to remember anything--whenever something happens it has to filter through so much inside a person that it becomes changed just from the thinking and pondering and remembering.

  5. For very moving or even traumatic experiences the emotional impact often outweighs the descriptive detail such as would be recorded by a camera. In court, that difference would be a terrible thing; but in writing of one's experience, it is the impact, not the thing, which is so important.

    Taking it a step further, the deepest part of our selves experience truth which is hidden to our senses but which the heart knows-- that is not license to lie, it is license to express.

    Like music: Our ears hear, but what it makes us feel, what it makes us think, what it causes us to remember, or to dream-- that is not recorded, it can only be expressed. Hopefully, we do that with words on a page.

  6. Yes, that's what we all hope for. And work hard toward. Good insights, Cregil. Thank you for visiting the blog!

  7. I think the writer's idea of "fixed memories" is interesting - how they remain the same in the telling for years and years. As she says, these are the memories that remain unexplored. But perhaps something happens in the act of writing about them, as opposed to just talking about them, that triggers an impulse towards reflection, and this is the point at which the memory becomes malleable.
    I do agree that anything is altered merely through the act of putting our awareness on it. Once we commit our memories to paper, shaping them into stories, the stories we have told seem to usurp our memories and become the newest version of "the truth", as though we can never again have back the memory that had once existed in its raw form. For ever after, when we try to recall that incident, we see it now in the shape in which we wrote it.

  8. Thank you, Mary. It's fascinating material, makes for lively discussion. Glad you visited!