Memoir and memory: often-estranged spouses

We'll talk about the unreliability of these another time
We’ll talk about the unreliability of these another time

The scene choo-choo-chugged toward the climax I’d foreseen for it, sentences streaming like smoke behind the engine as it drove down the track I’d been laying for pages. Years. And then ­—

That’s not what happened.

I knew the incident I painted as soundly as I know my own name, in all its incarnations and implications. Up until that moment, I’d have sworn up and down on a stack of whatever religious propaganda blind justice demanded that it had happened just the way I told it. Until, suddenly, I realized it hadn’t.

So derailed, I sat with my fingers shaking on the keyboard as my plot rolled off into the weeds, a cloud of dust enveloping the clarity of purpose that had been so crystalline moments before.

In Mary Karr’s latest memoir Lit, she writes, “whatever the case, those years filter back through the self I had at the time, when I was most certainly — even by my yardstick then — a certain species of crazy … Decades ago, I trained myself to mistrust that girl’s perceptions. No doubt she projected as many pixels onto the world’s screen as she took in. So while I trust the stories I recall in broad outline, their interpretation through my old self is suspect.”

And that’s why writing memoir or personal essay or whatever you want to call it (more on the weight of those terms in another entry, I suspect) is at once invigorating and terrifying. We who write them are shackled to the responsibility to Tell The Truth. But that truth is as elusive as our own self knowledge which is, in turn, colored by our perception of ourselves, both at the time of the incidents we uncover and the often-murky veil of time and experience that separates our past selves and the writer self who must examine them.

Like Karr, I struggle to consider the memories I have told myself as truth. I research myself as thoroughly as I do any “objective” subject, exploring my past as a foreign country. Because memory, taken without verification, is suspect at best. And because the stories that are most worth telling, that carry the most weight for us as writers, as subjects and as people, are the same ones that the mind is most likely to shield us from.

Sometimes I catch my mind in lies. Or rather, it catches me. And when it does, it’s like being caught in the stomach by a ball in gym class. Don’t we all remember that sensation? It’s not an injury, not quite. But it sends me reeling, my back up against the cold, painted concrete that somehow still smells of institutional lacquer even years after the gymnasium’s renovation. Self-uncertainty smells acrid. I find myself windless, staring at a scene I hadn’t remembered I’d forgotten, until it arose to show me just how unreliable a mind can be.

It’s terrifying.

And even more so is the realization that these scenes we’re shielded from are the ones that most need to be told, or they’re the reasons we need to tell our stories, in the first place. To write them, it’s necessary to shuck off the self-preservation this subconscious selection imposes, and that’s both a dangerous and uncertain enterprise. It’s not one I undertake lightly, or enter into without a large degree of trepidation.

It’s also why I stagger unsteadily under the memoir umbrella. Because even the stories I recall are painted with my own brush, using only the hues I most prefer. And the realizations I’ve come to at those breathtaking moments remind me how much give-and-take is involved in recollection.

Retelling those stories through the filter of my old self is most similar to smearing the lens with vaseline before snapping the shot, and I’m not unaware of the responsibility this places in my hands. To my subject. To myself. To the memory I distrust as soundly as I assume gravity will hold my feet to the ground.

I still haven’t resurrected the ashes of the scene that still lies smoldering in the weeds after my subconscious uncovered it as falsely recollected. Sometimes, when the truth I set out to tell unveils itself as inconsistent with the moments I have recorded as memory, I need to meditate on why my mind has chosen to alter them.

Because when I understand why my memory is unreliable, I can get closer to the truth of the story as it needs to be retold. That’s the only reason to write memoir that I can understand, the only reason I feel its urgency rising like panic in my throat. As human creatures, we are given memory so that we can process and understand the world in which we’re moving. As memoir writers, we are given the gift of recording it so that we can help each other do the same.


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