can we trust memory?

Memory is, by its very nature, flawed. Our brains take snapshots of events, and encode, along with the picture, smells, sounds, textures, and sometimes dialogue. But the whole scene is not captured; only the parts that impacted us. Memory is piecemeal.

Nonetheless, when we undertake writing a memoir—a chunk of our history—we are stuck with memory as our main source material, and if we’re lucky, journals we might have kept. It is my belief that if we have worked hard not to judge others, and to honestly assess the role we played in those events, we can use those memories to help reconstruct the story.

A big section of my memoir took place over thirty years ago. When faced with writing dialogue, I relied on my feeling sense of the encounters. Occasionally I remembered actual sentences people said, because they struck me so strongly. But most the time, I recreated it. Many people who are in the memoir have now read my account. No one, including the doctors who played a powerful role in our lives, has complained about the conversations I reconstructed in the memoir.

Of course, I also did research, and talked to people who were in my life back then. They were less helpful than I expected. These were not vivid memories that they had stored, because the situation hadn’t impacted them the way it had me.

So as long as you are not out to blame anyone, including yourself, and have developed an honest curiosity—even in situations where you felt victimized—I suggest trusting yourself, and writing what you recall on the page.

© Skye Blaine, 2016

1 Comment

Filed under memoir, writing, writing craft

One response to “can we trust memory?

  1. I have grappled with the memory question in my memoir. I have also found that others not only do not remember some things that I do, but don’t remember much at all about childhood in general. There is something about conversation that sticks in my head; I remember them, if they impress me, just like I remember the words of a song. I also remember the way things look to me when I have a strong experience… many of my early childhood memories, words, experiences and settings, have been confirmed with old photos or by those who were around me at the time. So even though I’m starting from age two, so far, it’s actually accurate. If I learn something wasn’t quite the way I recall, which has been rare, I fix it to be true, and, like you, have done research to discover that things I was told about polio as a disabled youngster were not true, so the facts rather than myths are in my book. I have made an honest attempt to only include what I truly do remember, even though professionals have told me to “make stuff up to embellish it.” If I don’t remember a conversation ever happening, it’s not in the book… if I have a vague recollection, I say that it “went something like this.” So I appreciate what you’ve done in reconstructing what is not concrete but is at the same time very real. It makes me think of the example of a cup; if you looked from one side and didn’t see it had a handle, you’d call it a ceramic glass or vessel. Then when you saw the handle you’d rename it a cup. Depends on from where you look.

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