Rearranging the Furniture – Another Perspective on Memoir

 

file0001331126938In earlier blogs, I’ve pondered how memoirs are influenced by what we actually remember as well as by what elements of a given memory we choose to include.

A thought-provoking article in Sunday’s New York Times by the author André Aciman explores yet another question … the extent to which the things we write permanently alter what we remember.

My memoir, Sailing Down the Moonbeam, drew on journal entries I made during my three-year sailing voyage from New York to New Zealand, including nearly a year on the Pacific Ocean.  However, many of those journal entries were prompted by anger and frustration as Tom and I tried to adjust to life in a small and often constrained environment.  Those journal entries—and the memories they elicited—weren’t false, but they were often incomplete and/or one-sided versions of the actual events.

Twenty years later, as I began writing Moonbeam, I had to consider Tom’s “side of the story.”  What I wrote in my memoir reflected my attempt to be a credible witness to my own story.  But four years later, what I now “remember” about those events is very different from the record in my journal.  In more than one instance, the memory that prompted me to write the memoir has been completely erased or significantly rearranged.

Curiously, a similar issue arises with my novel.  Not long after my husband and I separated, I became involved in a love affair with a woman. For a time, it was exciting and exhilarating, but the ultimate significance of our relationship was not the sexual dimension. It was the extent to which her personality made her a stand-in for my husband … the extent to which the dynamics of my marriage persisted in this new relationship.

Unfortunately, the factual details of that relationship—the inspiration for the novel—don’t always offer the kind of dramatic action a novel needs.  And so, my characters take action based on the demands of the genre rather than the facts of my story.

And, of course, with every new scene I write, my memory of what actually happened is rearranged.

 

Truth in Memoir: Omission vs. Commission

UnknownFor memoir writers, one of the most interesting things about the 2013 Oscar awards is the amount of ink spilled on the subject of truth in films that cover historical events or figures.  We’ve seen a host of opinions, for example, about the accuracy of the interrogation scenes in Zero Dark Thirty.  

There seems to be no conclusive evidence pro or con.

It is not my intent to weigh in on the accuracy of the debate.  But the debate has highlighted another aspect of truth in story telling—the intentional omission of an important piece of information.

Could the writers and producers have told the story of Osama bin Laden’s capture without including those very disturbing interrogation scenes? Perhaps, although it would have been a very different story.

But should those scenes have been left out, as suggested by Senator Diane Feinstein, so as to avoid going “back to those dark times?”

I think not. Whatever your view of interrogation as an intelligence tool, torture did take place in the effort to find bin Laden.  To intentionally leave these interrogations out of the story constitutes a form of revisionism or white-washing of our history.

There is a lesson here for memoir writers, who often struggle with revealing emotionally difficult details.  I remember clearly, as I wrote Sailing Down the Moonbeam, having my writing partners tell me that no one was forcing me to tell the story of my three-year sailing journey.  On the other hand, they said repeatedly, if I was going to tell the story, I had to be honest about it. I couldn’t leave out the embarrassing or painful parts.

Every author has the right to choose what story he or she wants to tell. But having chosen the story, the author has an obligation to tell the whole truth of the story, not just the incidents and events that put the author in the best light.

Is this something that you’ve struggled with in writing your memoir?

 

Forgotten Memories

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How many of us rely on “forgotten memories”? 

My question was prompted by Oliver Sacks’s article entitled “Speak, Memory” in the New York Review of Books.  In it he recounts his discovery, some years after publishing his memoir, that one of his most vivid childhood memories was false.  Not false, as in he made it up, but false as in it happened to someone else.  His memory was based an extensive and moving description of the event in a letter from his brother. He “remembered” the details of the event, but he “forgot” the source of the information.

His article went on to explore the difference between plagiarism and cryptomnesia.  Plagiarism implies intentionality, a conscious and willing misappropriation of someone else’s ideas or images.  By contrast, cryptomnesia (“hidden memory”) describes ideas and images that emerge in consciousness without memory of their source.  

Cryptomnesia, according to Sacks, can be a vital factor in creativity, insofar as it allows ideas and thoughts to be “reassembled, retranscribed, recategorized, given new and fresh implications.”  But how often is that “new idea” simply a remembering of an idea whose context or source you no longer remember?

Sacks has put a name to a phenomenon that has bothered me in recent months.  As I do my own blog and write guest posts on other blogs, I am constantly on the lookout for inspiration and use Google Alerts to find new sources on topics (memoir vs. fiction, letting go, mindfulness, risk-taking) that are of particular interest to me.  

Often, my new blog builds on an idea I’ve used before.  But often, it builds on someone else’s idea, much as today’s blog does.  I make a concerted effort to give credit to the author of the idea, but I do wonder how often I use an “idea” without realizing that it really isn’t mine, that I have “forgotten” where the idea came from.

This is, I think, a distinction that writers of all stripes (not just memoirists) should be sensitive to.  Aren’t we all “cryptomnesiacs”?!

Writing is Living Twice

I don’t know if I believe the old saw about “only going around once” but I know the life I inhabit now is the only one I have to work with.  And, as I chronicled in Sailing Down the Moonbeam, I believe you live more fully when you dwell in the moment rather than waiting for the future or longing for the past.

DSC_0309So why did I resonate so strongly with a chapter title — Writing is Living Twice — in Susan Weidener’s lovely memoir, Morning at Wellington Square

It’s linked, I think, to the benefits of journaling … that by writing, we can access the deeper meaning of the events and emotions that swirl around our lives. Sometimes, that deeper meaning comes through recollections or insights that emerge as you write.  Sometimes, it comes from examining the unspoken assumptions we’ve made or contradictions we’ve ignored.  Sometimes, it comes from letting our imagination run free, from exploring what could be or what might have been.

I first learned that lesson, in a mostly intellectual way, during my 30+ years in the financial markets, where I often taught about complex economic or financial concepts.  I discovered early on that if I couldn’t write my idea down clearly, I didn’t understand it well enough to explain it to someone else.  

It was a lesson I learned again in writing Moonbeam, some twenty years after that voyage ended.  For many years, for example, I recalled my months in Panama as an unscheduled diversion from the main thread of my journey, a middle life coming-of-age story.  But in writing the memoir, I came to see that it was during those months in Panama that the seeds of my growth were sown and so richly fertilized.  It was the first time that I had to — and was free to — build a persona without the burden of other people’s expectations. That realization permanently altered the way I think about getting through the day.   

Has your writing changed the way you live your life? I would love to hear about it!