One of my favorite paintings as a young adult was The Persistence of Memory by Salvador Dalí. You might know it better as “that melting clock painting.” Years later, as I became I writer and started recalling my own memories, this painting took on a new meaning for me. I realized that memory is an ever-shifting kaleidoscope of permanence and impermanence. I pictured it as Dalí’s painting, only in motion: the clocks melting and transforming into other things. Call it the impersistence of memory.
In my book I am writing about my life: specifically a five year block beginning with Julia’s pregnancy and ending around the time my daughter turns four. I’ve been writing this book on and off for almost three years, and in the process I’ve discovered some important things about memory. Not being one to journal, I had to work mostly off my own recollections with a lot of help from Julia. I wanted to be accurate—otherwise I’d write a novel—but at first I found myself obsessing over details: exact sequences of events and specific dialogue for example.
Maybe it’s that my clock is more foggy than anything else, and sometimes the fog is so thick that I can’t even make out the hands. Yet I want to remember so I can tell the story better. In my experience, there are four words I need to keep in mind when I’m writing form my own memories:
Distance. I wrote the first half of the manuscript within the first year, largely because the events I wrote about occurred three to four years earlier. I had the luxury of distance to be able to look back and see Julia’s pregnancy and Anna’s first year in the perspective of what came after. The second half has come much more slowly: almost in real time, with about a two to three window intervening. The events that end the book are a little over two years old, and I just now have the distance needed to write about them.
Detail. When I’m writing a scene I try to place myself in the setting and see everything around me. What did the room look like? Who was there? What were they wearing? What was their mood? My mood? What were the sounds? The smells? The best writing needs to capture all these details, so I try my best to remember what I can and then fill in the blanks with what would make sense.
Detachment. This is the hardest part for me when I’m writing about my own experiences. As I relive a scene I feel the same emotions I experienced at the time. It’s good to be able to remember how I felt, but sometimes the experiences are so intense that I can’t get the words out. I have to force myself to step out of my old self and watch the scene from the wings.
Dialogue. Like everyone, my memory isn’t perfect. As I think back over an experience I find myself stumbling into holes. The best way to fill at least some of those holes is to talk to someone who was there with you. Julia has been my writing partner of sorts, confirming correct memories, correcting incorrect memories, and plugging the gaps in between.
And there are three more words I need to be on guard against:
Doubt. Memories can be foggy, fuzzy, or downright unreliable. Some times I can find a second person—usually Julia—to confirm sketchy recollections, but other times I have no one available to support or correct my memories. In these instances, it’s easy to doubt myself and shut down. Yet a writer’s worst enemy is any excuse not to write. So I set my doubts aside and let myself write anyway. Often the act of writing helps me remember, but if I can’t it doesn’t matter as long as I try my best.
Dishonesty. I have to establish a relationship with my readers, and the only was to do that is to be honest. It’s tempting to make stuff up when I write, whether to cover for an embarrassing incident or make my job easier. If I’m writing fiction, it’s ok to manufacture everything out of my imagination, but in writing non-fiction I’m expected to tell the story the way it happened. I don’t have to get every detail right, but I shouldn’t lie either.
Denial. As important as it is to be honest with my readers, it is just as important to be honest with myself. This is the most tempting out of all, especially when I have no witnesses to say “That’s not what happened!” But if I am not honest with myself about myself, I will put a screen up between my readers and myself and my writing will suffer for it.