Memoir and Memory: Truth, Lies, and Everything In-between

30Jan13

I’m sitting under a painting of a naked lady.  Once a week, I sit in the corner of the café with my writer friend Diane.  She’s fond of saying, “I tell people I spent my morning under a naked lady.” And it’s true. The painting is huge: spans a quarter of the wall of the café, a baroque nude with deep shadows in black and brown surrounded by a thick, gold frame.  Her back is to the audience, a draped, ruby curtain hanging to the side as if she’s in a play, as if the show is almost over.  Or maybe it’s just begun.

In my mind, I see the woman as middle-aged and sensual, rich brown hair tied into a tight bun.  She lies on a chaise lounge, a jewel-toned blue.  But today I see her hair is blonde, pulled into a loose bun with a modern-day, pink hair binder. She’s on a table draped with a white sheet.  My memory has molded her into something quite different then the reality.  She is: Younger. Stiffer. Plainer. Beautiful. But not romantic.

Memory.  As a nonfiction writer, memory is our muse.  We reach deep into the backdrop of our lives and unearth important details, significant moments and objects that propel our story forward.  Yet, I am reminded as I sit underneath this grand nude of my lenses and filters that switch with my mood, my situation.

I am always asked how my work can be so distinct and sharp, how the details pop and crackle with as much life as the story itself.  In my mind, these details are real.  Maybe more real than they were the first time I witnessed them.  They become louder and larger and brighter than the background.  I’m certain there were more objects and people and noises in the room then what my memory’s clutched in its hands. As nonfiction writers, it’s impossible to capture every moment, detail, and essence of the experience.  The art of writing, of careful craftsmanship teaches us to pick and choose, to illustrate with important, telling details, not unnecessary ones.

Which brings me back to the art of memory, of truth.  As I write, the naked lady still has dark hair and reclines on velvety, blue couch.  She’s still middle-aged and magnificently sensuous.  She’s old-fashioned and not modern, not some young model posing for a room of art students for a few bucks.  She’s a woman with a secret and a story and past she sometimes chooses to share. That’s my story.  I’m sticking to it.  Is it a lie?  Purists might argue that it is.  Abstract artists would probably argue that it is not.

What, dear readers and writers, are your thoughts?  Do you stretch your memory, the truth for the sake of a better story, for art? If it “feels” true, is it?  Or do you have a firm, final line and fact-check your memory with phone calls and photographs? How do you navigate the murky waters of truth, memory, and lies?

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17 Responses to “Memoir and Memory: Truth, Lies, and Everything In-between”

  1. 1 BehindMyBooks

    I agree with this idea entirely. Especially when writing about more difficult subjects, I have very little “unfiltered” memory. I am only beginning to unearth memories which I had buried long ago. So there are moments when the dialogue is incorrect, but propels the story more effectively. There are moments when people are more beautiful, or ugly. And I can’t even begin to keep ages or years straight.

    I’m terrified someone will go through and decide I’m full of shit because I’ve written that something happened when I was 21, 20, and 22. In reality, memories are difficult to capture, and even more difficult to relay without editing.

    I don’t think that makes them any less honest. Great post, and very thought provoking. Now I want to reread everything I written over the last month.

    • I’m on the same page. This is a conversation I have with other Nonfiction writers often. I was excited to see how people here would respond. We could argue that any dialogue written isn’t entirely “true,” unless we have a photographic memory. I have a photographic memory for select things only! And those things I can’t choose. They choose me, really.

      • 3 BehindMyBooks

        I agree. I’ve only recently started writing dialogue at all, and it is not my forte. If I try and remember the exact conversation it will never work out.

        Not to mention, real life conversation is repetitious. We go through trends as far as what phrases and vocabulary we use most often.

        Recently I have been enjoying the word “palpable” a lot in conversation. If I wrote every conversation I have had in the last six months, the word palpable would be everywhere. And that is now, what if I’m writing about when I was seventeen, or even worse–fourteen? The speech will be painful and unpleasant to read.

        Bah, dialogue should never be truly “Nonfiction”. That is just a bad idea.

  2. 4 Steve

    Where does fiction and non-fiction begin and end? Surely an author can take some liberty in their depiction of a character; but there must be some limits. If one knows George Washington to have been truthful and embellishes his bio with a Cherry Tree story (which may or may not have really happened) .. it could be a reasonable stretch. But if one went on to say that George Washington, the father of our country, had great inner strength.. and actually could fly and read minds, etc. that would have crossed several lines, I believe. You can picture your young lady as just that.. and propose that when she is older you can see.. such and such.. But to see a young woman and depict her as old, with different hair color, different style and situation.. and call it non-fiction.. I think that too much of a stretch.

    • I see your point. I’m not sure if I 100% agree. It’s taken me a long while to get to that point. I used to be much more steadfast in what I considered “truth.” Another reader pointed out that all dialogue to some extent is fabricated because we don’t know it verbatim. Thoughts?

    • Washington didn’t claim to chop down a cherry tree. That story was fabricated later by a biographer. In CNF we have a contract with the reader. Readers know that somethings will be a rough replication of events and dialogue, but that those events and dialogue will contain the emotional truth of the story. Not only that they will also understand that you the writer are rendering the story as close to the truth of what happened as possible. I wrote about it here: http://jdmathes.com/2013/01/25/to-sort-of-tell-the-truth-or-whats-my-lies/ last week. Did it happen or not? If you don’t know, say so. But why is it important that they read what you wrote? It’s not for memory’s sake or a court recorder’s account of events. It’s for something deeper and that is where you need to stoke the fires of truth.

  3. 7 AR

    I was just thinking about this today! I was thinking – what if I am full of shit? What if I only think I remember some of the things I write about? It was so many years ago…then I decided, who cares? The memory is mine, it feels true to me. If there are a few dull spots I gloss over, that’s ok and maybe it makes the story better. It’s about a feeling. The way we remember things is the way it happened, to us.

    • I’m with you on this one. I think it’s unrealistic to expect CNF writers to 100% know EVERYTHING. I do, however, believe in a blending of events at times and composite characters. Some aren’t comfortable with that, but writing is also an art form. I think people forget that.

  4. 9 Mark

    I do my best thinking when I”m writing; there must be a kinesthetic pole in my brain but it only works for certain activities. Not for physical activities, so much, though I am certainly no klutz, but definitely for thinking. I often don’t know what I think until I see it on the page. None of this may be what you had in mind . . .

    • I think I understand what you are saying. Sometimes the process of writing makes us understand situations better and makes events clearer. Did I get that right?

  5. If it’s in my head, I write it. I’ll state if it’s fiction, but usually, just the way I view things, which is more colorful than you saw it. I tend to see things that others don’t. No really, I’ll look at something and have a whole story about it, that more than likely is not there, but it’s what I see.

  6. All writers are thieves. I am full of shit, and using meditation to conjure up more.

  7. I have this debate with my non-fiction students all the time. For me it’s about storytelling and not exorcising, so the first allows for a writerly flourish, rather than what the second would ask for which is to search out the truth. (I’ve got a belated thanks to give you so I’m going to search back to that post and make my gratitude known!)

  8. Just caught up on the Running Away story. It’s so gripping and I really feel for the character – for you, or your past self. As far as memory – I just assume that someone who writes about their past is writing as true to their memory as possible, with the understanding that memory is flawed. I tend to think that pure events, as opposed to embellished ones, hold more emotional weight anyway. Naive?? Maybe. S’just how I see it though. 🙂

  9. Fortunately, my life requires no embellishment. I couldn’t make this stuff up whatsoever.
    I’m simply not that talented.


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