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.



  1. ” … the factual details of that relationship—the inspiration for the novel—don’t always offer the kind of dramatic action a novel needs …” Just one of the reasons to choose novel over memoir.

    Writing changes our memories as if our memories weren’t faulty enough as it is. Just this week, my ex husband reminded me that he was also on an international trip I took early in my career with an association. Until he said that, I’d have sworn under oath that I had traveled solo on that trip. Wow!

    • It seems to happen to me all the time … I don’t go back to my sailing journals too often, but I do revisit my letters and journals from the period after Tom and I separated. Sometimes feels like two separate lives!

  2. I devour your blogs! I’ve been writing my memoir for the past few months and find that it’s developing in layers.. I have had as a goal to harvest my hundreds of journals over the past 32 years, yet as I began writing, I have chosen to write my current memory, then go back and read the journals for that time frame. I’m finding the perspective from the ‘now’ and the ‘then’ shows that the years have distanced me emotionally from any rawness with which I initially wrote. Now I see more widely, more kindly, more integrated. Both are valid — just different. I am contemplating having text boxes with inserts from the journals so that both ;then and now’ versions are validated.

  3. Thanks Maryellen. An interesting approach. I like your idea of text boxes … so the reader sees the “facts of the matter” as well as the perspective you’ve gained with the passage of time. I shall look forward to reading it.

  4. Mary,
    I read the Acimen article in The NY Times and find your post to be a very enlightening distillation of how our memories are rearranged. And your point that our lives often do not meet the drama that the genre demands resonates as I write my own memoir and try to craft some drama into the narrative while still staying committed to the essence of the truth. Interesting! Thanks for a great post.

    • Kathleen You’re dealing with one of the key challenges of memoir writing — if it doesn’t read like fiction, it can be very hard to read. But trying to establish a compelling pace and tension out of life events that were often routine or repetitive takes some doing. As I’ve mentioned in an earlier post, SAILING DOWN THE MOONBEAM captures the emotional truth of my separation from Tom, but I suspect most readers would have hurled the book at the wall if I’d walked them through each and every time Tom and I tried (and failed) at the reconciliation process.

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