Monday, April 25, 2011

A Complicated Memory

How many of us go through our lives pressing an imaginary "Record" button? It's a way of trying to memorize the past while it is still present, so one can learn from it later on or just enjoy the memory.

I read this great article in Rumpus, "The Heroic Lie: A Brief Inquiry into the Fake Memoir," about what constitutes lying in creative non-fiction. The answer is unclear because memory is based on perception. We don't necessarily remember things as we actually witnessed them and we probably witnessed subjectively.

For example, for years I remembered my family's Christmas tree from when I was really young as this huge, twinkling thing. Then a few years ago I saw a picture of it. A picture of a small, sparsely branched fake tree that didn't glow or twinkle. I had remembered it differently for all of those years because it did look huge to me, a small child, and I was so excited about Santa and presents that the tree seemed magical. Also, I seemed to be confusing our simple tree with the tree from a Nutcracker animated production.

If I had described my old tree as I remembered it, before I saw that picture a few years ago, would I be lying? By some definitions, yes, because it wasn't big. It didn't glow. But that's how I saw it. And if I wrote about the simple tree as the glorious one I apparently imagined, who could accuse me of lying?

What makes it even more complicated is that now I remember the tree from the picture, not the tree I saw as a child. Photographs and other artifacts that hold the past can change our memories. I recently realized that I hold onto these artifacts because a part of me thinks they will transport me back in time. These objects seem to make my memories tangible. They are a way to literally hold onto the past.

This creates huge ethical issues in creative non-fiction because the facts can't really be verified. And they aren't really facts, as much as testimony is valued when history is logged. Truth becomes a subjective term dependent as much on sentiment as on facts.


  1. This is such an interesting subject, and I agree, a complicated one. Certainly, it is a fragmentary collection of perceptions, as well as the feelings that were associated with them. Certain perceptions have an 'exalted' place in our memories. Others are repressed. Not only do we like to remember certain things, they become increasingly embellished or even fabricated to the point of a personal mythology. A memory may actually be a small 'excerpt' of a moment in time. In describing a memory, however, it becomes a narrative story of which we are the central character. This requires invention by the mind to make it a continuous and whole story, rather than the sequence of fragments actually remembered. There are some principles of Gestalt theory embedded in this. We fill in the empty spaces with fabrications of what must have been the case, and then accept these as fact.

    Why does 'absence make the heart grow fonder?' We like congruence more than dissonance, so in an experience once filled with mixed emotions, (approach/avoidance) the negative feelings melt away, and the positive gets augmented
    As for the history books, they are re-written all the time. Textbooks in public education get re-written from the P.O.V. of the changing political winds. One reason why a discussion of ourselves as a species gets forever revised. A science book may, in one decade, view evolution as a comprehensive chronology of fact, and later deal with it as a theory to consider along with such concepts as divine intelligence, and so on. Books on the shelf of a public school library may actually be added to, or dropped from reading lists in an effort to steer or re-write history.

    Sorry for the long comment. These thought just all came to mind.

  2. Here's a saying I love: "Don't let the facts get in the way of the truth."

  3. Great example of fickle memory and how artifacts and imagination massage it. Staying true to both objective events and the fluidity of memory is part of what I enjoy (and also find very hard) in writing creative nonfiction.

  4. Mythopolis - Yes, memory seems to be fragmented. That just makes it more complicated! Thanks for your thoughtful comment!

    Bossy - Ah, I like it! Never heard that one before...

    Elizabeth - Welcome to my blog and thank you! I love "massages it." Great description and so accurate. Imagination further embeds it. Thanks!