Memory is fallible. Memory is fragile. Memory ends at the present moment. It is everything you have lived, experienced, seen, and felt up until this instant. Everyone holds their own set of memories. Sometimes it might feel unnecessary to stick to the exact or literal truth of what happened, as long as the message or the meaning of the experience is portrayed.
Fiction writers must master the art of creating a vivid picture, but the challenge for memoirists is to determine how and what to remember. Very often, storytelling, whether verbal or written, is a cross between fiction and nonfiction. For example, when people write memoirs, they typically convey the truth — to the best of their knowledge. However, memory plays tricks on us, and sometimes details get blurred. Typically, what we remember is based on how we felt (positive or negative) in response to an experience.
The concept of memory has been on my mind lately. It might have to do with the fact that I’m teaching a memoir-writing class, that I have an aging mother, and because many people have been complaining that they’re questioning the nature and/or clarity of their recollections. Perhaps the omnipresent social media and the necessity for daily multitasking is obscuring our sense of focus. What we forget might not always pertain to important matters — maybe it’s more about mundane subjects, such as the point that you were making in a conversation or where you left your keys.
At times, when we tell stories, we might consciously or unconsciously fill in the gaps as a way to make the narrative hang together; thus, we are merging our memories with our imagination. This can also be called embellishment. A well-known example is the drama surrounding James Frey’s memoir, A Million Little Pieces. Back in 2002, Smoking Gun published an article claiming that Frey had fabricated part of his book. This inspired many people to read it, and, as a result, sales skyrocketed. When he was interviewed about what happened, Frey said that all memoirists alter minor details to increase the literary effect of their stories. His comment ignited a nationwide discussion about truth in memoir, something I had been discussing in my writing workshops for years.
Years ago, I conducted a research project on the interplay between memory and imagination. I compared two memoirs…