Bad Advice Wednesday: Greatest Hits

categories: Bad Advice / Cocktail Hour

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Bill and friends, August, 1972


One of the many curious things about the act of writing is the way it can give access to the unconscious mind. And in the hidden parts of consciousness lie not only hobgoblins and neurotic glimmers, but lots of regular stuff, the everyday stuff of memory. The invisible face of your grade school bully is in there, somewhere, and the exact smell of the flowers on vines in your grandma’s backyard, along with most everything else, perhaps including borrowed memories, even false ones. Some memories are going to be painful, but some pleasurable, too. An awful lot is just informational, the stuff of lost days.

And—I’m just realizing this—memory is what people are made of. After skin and bone, I mean. And if memory is what people are made of, then people are made of loss. No wonder we value our possessions so much. And no wonder we crave firm answers, formulae, facts and figures. All are attempts (however feeble in the end) to preserve what’s gone. The present is all that’s genuinely available to anyone, and the present is fleeting, always turning instantly to the past. Even facts distort: what’s remembered, recorded, is never the event itself, no matter how precise the measurement (a baseball score is not the game).  Memoir is never a re-creation—that’s impossible.  At best what we can do is listen to memory and watch memory (the other senses are involved, as well), and translate for those we want to reach, our readers.

If you’ve written fiction at all, you know that detail is required to make a vivid scene. What’s in the room? What sort of day is it? Who exactly is in the scene, and what exactly do they look like? All well and good writing fiction: you make it up. But writing nonfiction, the challenge is different: how to remember. For, of course, if we’re going to call it a true story, the details better be true, right? Then again, we all know memory is faulty. Don’t forget Tobias Wolff: “[M]emory has its own story to tell.”

My sister Carol likes to tell the story of the time our younger brother, Doug, sucked on a hollow toy bolt till it suctioned onto his lips. He was maybe four. She and Mom and Doug were at Roton Point, our run-down beach club in Connecticut, end of the day, marching to the car carrying blankets and towels and pails and toys. Doug was a stocky little kid (we sibs meanly called him The Bullet till he shot up into a slim young man), and he looked cute as hell stumbling along carrying the Scotch cooler with this big blue bolt suctioned onto his lips. In the car he still wore it, all the way to the guard booth, where he liked to say good-bye to the genial old guard who watched the beach gate. Carol tells the story at Thanksgiving and Christmas about every year. And I believe she told it at Doug’s wedding: rehearsal dinner. Anyway, at the gate, Bullet Boy tried to pull the bolt off to say hi to the guard, but it wouldn’t come. He’d sucked on it so long and so hard he couldn’t unstick it. So Carol grabbed hold of the threaded end of the thing, wrestled with it a little till pop it came loose.

And Carol looked at Doug and Doug looked at Carol and then Carol said, “My God!” and so Mom turned and said it, too: “My God!” Doug’s lips—poor Doug!—were ballooned up like some character’s in a cartoon, so big even he could see them. Doug freaked! Carol freaked! Mom freaked! Doug cried and cried, even though it didn’t hurt, but before they could even get near the doctor’s, the swelling had disappeared.

That’s it. Cute little family story. But the trouble is, Carol wasn’t there! I was there. And the bolt wasn’t blue, it was yellow. And that guard was a nasty old guy. I can still see him, all crabbed in his cheap uniform. And Mom didn’t freak; she laughed. She laughed despite herself, because poor little Doug looked so comical, and because—this is important—she knew he’d be all right. And I laughed and laughed, “Bwaa-ha-ha!” because I was a big brother, and big brothers laughed at the misfortunes of younger, at least they did in 1963.

I let Carol tell the story at meals, only occasionally challenging her, and now that’s part of the family story, how we both claim the memory. I know she’s wrong. She knows I’m wrong. Whom do you believe? Does it matter? Maybe we’re both wrong. Is something more important than swollen lips at stake here?

Memory is faulty. That’s one of the tenets of memoir. And the reader comes to memoir understanding that memory is faulty, that the writer is going to challenge the limits of memory, which is quite different from lying. One needn’t apologize. The reader also comes expecting that the writer is operating in good faith, that is, doing her best to get the facts right.

Listen to Darrel Mansell, a teacher of writing, in his article on nonfiction in the old Associated Writing Programs Chronicle.

“You just can’t tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth about that amorphous blob primary substance—language with its severely limited and totally unrealistic rules and regulations won’t permit it. Furthermore the aesthetic and rhetorical demands of writing won’t quite permit it either. The best you can do is to be scrupulous about facts and conscientious about what you and only you know to be the essential truth of your subject. That way you have a shot at telling one modest aspect of what really happened—something true, up to a point.”

[From Writing Life Stories]

  1. Nancy Fulton writes:

    lovely piece of writing. I often think that the subtext –unconscious or otherwise– in Nicholson Baker’s work is recovering the loss of detail , the small stuff that pounds in our memories like a heartbeat.