Bad Advice Wednesday: The Memory Game

categories: Bad Advice / Cocktail Hour


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. Valerie Lane writes:

    This is great Bill. I love memoir. By the way please tell Dave that I am reading his book “Prophet of Dry Hill” to my elderly friend and we are both enjoying it immensely. I bought it when he came to Craigville for a talk on ospreys.

    Love your blogs even if I don’t always get a chance to comment on them.

  2. monica wood writes:

    “The reader also comes expecting that the writer is operating in good faith, that is, doing her best to get the facts right.”

    That’s the key for me: not to betray my earnest reader by making stuff up. Even little things. I might remember that our dog weighed 60 pounds; the truth might be a plain, normal-sized dog. Memory trumps fact, in this case, because THIS IS HOW I REMEMBER THE DOG.

    But–and this is my beef with certain memoirs, ones that have the ring of falsity, everything a little too “novelistic” to be believed–if I know full well that my dog was a plain little dog and I turn it into a monster for the purposes of a better scene, then I have thoroughly, willfully betrayed my reader’s trust. And if the reader can’t trust me on the little things, why should he believe ANYTHING I say?

    Of course we have to “recreate” scene and dialogue. Of course we have to leave some things out, things that inevitably shape the story one way or another. The reader doesn’t want to read our boring, repetitive diary. But it’s so, so, SO easy to start “recreating” and wind up spinning out into fiction. Not fair. Because our dear reader thinks it’s all true. He thinks this because we’ve TOLD him it’s true by calling it memoir.

    Memoirist to reader: I respect you. I will tell you the truth as far as I am able. I will not make stuff up.

    Reader to memoirist: I believe you. Thank you.

    • Bill writes:

      But I love when a memoirist tells a great story and then turns around and says, Wait, I’m not sure the dog was that big. Like Mary McCarthy in “Memories of a Catholic Childhood,” wherein she tells great stories and then corrects herself based on things her uncle and sisters told her after chapters appeared in the New Yorker. Or Augusten Burroughs, who offers an author’s note at the start of his memoir “Dry” to say that parts of the story are embellished. Both books are great entertainment, terrific memoirs, and very different from fiction. Memoirist to reader: I’m not a journalist. Reader to memoirist: That’s okay, I’m not a cop.

      Oh–I found the Augusten Burroughs: “This memoir is based on my experiences over a ten-year period. Names have been changed, characters combined, and events compressed. Certain episodes are imaginative re-creation, and those episodes are not intended to portray actual events.”


      • Susan Pearsall writes:

        To me, Augusten Burroughs’ disclaimer ia a disingenuous marketing ploy. He warns readers that his work contains “imaginative recreations” that “are not intended to portray actual events,” but he insists on calling it a memoir. Why not just call it a novel? My guess is there’s a bigger market for nonfiction than fiction.

        Remember James Frey? He first submitted “A Million Little PIeces” as a work of fiction. When it was turned down, he sold it as nonfiction. The rest is history…

        Why can’t a memoirist say, “This is how I remember that time?” I can respect that, as long as the writer does due diligence by verifying essential facts or admitting what he/she cannot recall. I think a writer does a grave disservice to the memoir genre when he/she deliberately does not tell the truth.

        • Bill writes:

          Oh, it’s totally disingenuous, as is the whole book, a memoir of terrible alcoholism, and has the alcoholic ring to it, as well. But it’s him and it’s his memoir, so to me it makes sense. I doubt that his little author’s note would have been there if the Frey debacle hadn’t just occurred! I actually find it as comic as the book. Frey actually submitted the original manuscript as a novel, is my understanding, and his editor, Nan Talese, suggested he make the shift to memoir, which was more than just changing the designation, but re-writing, too. (Gay Talese, husband of the editor, was outspoken later, and not in her defense). The reason you can’t just call a memoir that makes use of fiction a novel is that it’s not a novel. Memoirists always say “This is how I remember that time”: it’s implicit in the form. Bullshitting’s a form, too, and I would argue it’s nonfiction, but more on that later. In Ireland they call it Craic, and it’s venerated. Verifying facts is easy. Verifying stories impossible.

    • monica wood writes:

      As long as the reader goes in with knowledge up front regarding fictional elements, I think all’s fair. I think I reader approaches a memoir far more forgivingly that he approaches a novel. A reader will, I believe, forgive a lot of sloppy plotting, bad scene-making, even bad writing IF THEY THINK THE STORY THEY’RE READING IS TRUE. The “this really happened” gives the story automatic heft and urgency, a kind of heft and urgency that is much harder earned for the novelist.

      So I get really angry with largely fabricated memoirs by writers who don’t have the chops to write a novel–which is a million times harder than writing a memoir–taking advantage of the memoir-reader’s extended patience, a patience that same reader would not extend if he KNEW he was reading something that’s largely fiction.

      This is a huge, hard conversation that’s been going on since James Frey. The worst part of the Oprah debacle is that Nan Talese missed her chance to explain what a memoir really is. The two ends of the contiuum got polarized in an artificial way, when everyone could have had a conversation about what it means to “recreate” a scene from one’s remembered past and still be honest and forthright about keeping the I-will-not-lie-to-you pact with the reader.

      • Bill writes:

        I’m with you, Monica. There’s a difference between lying and remembering. And there’s a difference between fiction and memoir, too, a more subtle thing. The argument’s been going on from way before Frey (and who expected an ex-junkie to tell the truth?). Mary McCarthy had to defend MEMORIES OF A CATHOLIC GIRLHOOD from the journalists, but then she turned around and whaled on Lillian Hellman’s memoirs: “Every word she writes is a lie including ‘and’ and ‘the.'” They’d been friends! And you know, I don’t find memoir any easier to write than fiction, just vastly different. I’m looking forward to your memoir. I just loved the piece about your father, wow.

        • monica wood writes:

          You don’t find memoir easier than novel? Really? OMG, I couldn’t beleive how much easier–and it took so much less time. I realize something essential: it takes me four years per novel; the memoir took two years. Why? Because the first two years of a novel is finding the story and the characters. Since I already had those two essential elements, I figure I started two years ahead of myself with memoir, and got to do only the fun, rewarding stuff: the actual sentences, the connecting of events and themes, the fine-tuning of character. I wish-wish-wish-WISH I had another memoir; would write it in a second. (Actually I would write it in two years. You know what I mean.)

          • Bill writes:

            I do know what you mean. It is faster, that’s for sure. I just found getting a through-line (absent a compelling life narrative, and just working with love of nature, etc), really, really, really hard. Of course, that’s hard in fiction, too. But they’re so, so different. And of course you have another memoir–it’s just a harder one!

  3. Janine Winn writes:

    Ah, yes. I’ve always maintained that there are three versions of any story: yours, mine and what really happened.

  4. Chelle G writes:

    I recently wrote a short memoir piece and came to the conclusion that memories can function like water, carving away at rock or heart. Sometimes it is the loss of specific memories that eats at us, and sometimes a particularly powerful memory (that just won’t go away) devours a person. It takes both the lost and the retained to form a complete person. Strange, that something as fluid as memories can have such profound effects, and beautiful too.

  5. Tommy writes:

    Is something more important here than swollen lips? You bet! Glory. Ultimate Glory. The universal fault of any reporter, is they believe they own the story. The story is theirs, not the characters (real or imagined, who may have actually lived it), and the glory from telling it, is theirs not the poor saps who lived, prospered, or suffered through it.

    Memory is important because history tells us who we are; I am the sum total of everything I’ve ever done and been. But we all remember things a little differently and that’s why good law enforcement will tell you “eye witness” is not the best evidence.

  6. Brock Heasley writes:

    Best, most concise description of memoir I’ve yet read. Brilliant. This goes to my argument as well–that our best editor in telling our story is the mind. It already knows which things are most important.