"Based on Actual Events" - Memory vs. Reality in Writing

Memory is perhaps our most enduring relationship with the springs of the imagination. It may be the imagination, in a very real way. It's an unfortunate miscue that the memoir and the personal essay are called "nonfiction." This puts them under the same umbrella as the daily newspaper, and people get all heated about whether you "allow" yourself to "make things up" or if you "tell the truth." These questions make it almost impossible to consider the mind at work on its experience, both inner and outer. If I say a tall woman entered the room in a red dress, am I being more "factual" than if I write a statuesque beauty swanned into the room in a scarlet gown? Memory and perception come together, often, to make imagination. They do not make invention. - Patricia Hampl, in an interview with Heidi McKinley at Creative Nonfiction, Daydream Believer
The thing that's missing from my process of becoming a better writer is reading. I've been so focused on output that I let my input reserves dip.

Processes are nonrigid, and resemblance to linearity is a mirage. Creative process has to alternate like electricity or cricket batters. I use input/output methods like playing the same song over and again until a painting is finished - the song builds the world and keeps the tone constant while I strive to interpret what the universe has shown me.

Favourite authors sculpted my understanding of what literature should be. Ray Bradbury is at the top of that list. I met him once at a book signing in Palm Springs, California, ca. 2001. He was more adorable than I'd always suspected he was; those red suspenders and khaki shorts, comfortable shoes and trouser socks. He'd just found out that Fahrenheit 451 was becoming assigned reading in France, and he was so happy for his characters. They remained very real people to him, he told me. We had a great conversation before the media showed up, asking Media Questions, bidding he sit please so his knobby old-man knees were tucked away from the camera's eye.

This week, in addition to my book club book, I am reading 1Q84 by Haruki Marukami.

Haruki's character Tengo is a writer, and the author details Tengo's method of revising a manuscript. It's edifying in a recursive sort of way:  I, a writer, am reading words a writer wrote to show his character (a writer) rewriting what's already been writ. Yes, I had to do that.  

Tengo goes so far as to type out the story, rewrite it with pencil on paper (because each word feels different in another medium) and then types it up again. This makes so much sense to me. I don't know that I'm gonna try it, though.

Very often I work in memoirs, so the words of Patricia Hampl also make so much sense to me.  Memories are slippery. I don't know that Ray Bradbury's suspenders were actually red;  that's how I remember them, so now they are.  Which is the original? Why do you need to know? As the reader, you need only to believe so that the deeper meaning of the story is acceptable. You want something onto which you can comfortably map yourself (thanks for the concept, D.R.H.)

Perception will bend your memory - you are standing somewhere different now than you were when the fact took place. You have a different set of filters than you did when you built the initial memory. This is a very interesting opportunity to discover who you are now. Be careful with the juxtaposition in your story, however - you will probably have to choose either your current perspective or the one you think you had back then.

Intent is everything. If you have to adjust colors around the raw fact of your story to make sure the pure message makes it through birth, you're good. In art, we call that Impressionism - paying more attention to movement than where the lines are drawn.

Further Reading: 

Molecular Mechanisms of Memory Reconsolidation 
Here's some science behind the rewriting of memories. 

When Memories are Remembered They Can Be Rewritten 
by Nat'l Geo. blogger Ed Yong. You will like this article. 

Comments

  1. I almost met Ray Bradbury at least a dozen times. One of his daughters worked at my favorite Barnes & Noble in Thousand Oaks, and he was in and out of there all of the time, but never when I was there. And then he died. I felt a door close. :-(

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