Yes, You Can Write Memoir, Even If Your Memory Isn’t Great
by Lisa Romeo
My memory is not what it used to be. You might think that, since I’m a memoir writer, this means trouble for me. Not so. Even if my memory were still as sharp as it was 20 years ago, that wouldn’t mean the material I’d write would be any more compelling. Yes, memoir writing does depend greatly on the author’s memory, but it doesn’t depend on it entirely. And a terrific memory does not ensure that a memoir will be any more truthful either.
In an important way, this is a relief—and very good news for legions of would-be memoir writers who are struggling with faulty, fallible, incomplete, hazy, full-of-holes memories: in other words, anyone who is human. This means that possessing a brilliant foolproof memory is not a pre-requisite for writing memoir. This means you can write memoir.
The reason is simple, if also complex: while memory is the starting point, it’s where you go next as a writer that matters even more.
My first memoir, Starting with Goodbye, mostly covered events over a relatively recent three-year period following my father’s death in 2006, with a sprinkling of flashbacks to previous decades. Now, I’m working on a second memoir, this one tracing a specific theme throughout most of my life, meaning that it will include storylines spanning the 1960s to today.
That’s a lot of memories and a lot of memory challenges. But whether dredging up 53-year-old memories, or ones from last year, the way our human brains work means I’ll get it partly wrong. And that’s okay.
Here’s why: the opposite outcome—getting the memory 100 percent right, capturing it with complete accuracy, leaving nothing out—means I’d be asking the reader to believe that as an author, I’ve done something humanly impossible. No one recalls everything with precision.
When I wanted to know more about how memory works, I began researching and studying. Three of the most profound things I learned and which have significance for the memoir writer are:
- It is impossible for the average human brain to record with total accuracy even something that happened just minutes ago
- Our current memory of a past event is influenced by the stories we’ve told (and heard) over time about the original event
- The act of remembering itself often begets additional pieces of related memory (Great news! The more you write about a particular memory, the more you might retrieve.)
This all suggests that even if my memory were better, I couldn’t rely on it completely anyway. Once I understood this, my writing opened up. Without the grinding pressure to be “right” about every remembered detail, I began to regard my own initial memories as a starting place for writing memoir, but not as the only resource.
If you are writing memoir, begin with what you do remember, but then move on to additional ways and methods of gathering material for your writing project. Accepting that memory can’t do the full job of infusing memoir, you gain the gift of curiosity about your own past experiences. At that point, you can begin to explore the many activities that can assist in further excavating additional memory and/or learning more about your past story than is possible to retrieve only from your personal memory.
Useful memory aids include:
- Consulting archival materials, from official documents to the esoteric ephemera found in attics and old boxes
- Talking to others who may have related memories about shared events
- Going in search of memory triggers in the usual—and in some unlikely—places
- Trying mind-mapping, idea clustering, and other memory-kindling exercises
Knowing even a little bit about how the brain processes, stores, retrieves (and forgets) memory can be invaluable to anyone writing about their past. And although it would be terrific to conjure perfect recall on demand, the creative possibilities to be gained from working within, around, and underneath our memory limitations, may produce far more interesting writing experiences for us—and more captivating stories for readers.
Lisa Romeo is the author of the memoir Starting with Goodbye (University of Nevada Press, 2018). She teaches creative nonfiction in the Bay Path University MFA program, frequently presents and leads workshops at writing conferences and literary events, and works as a freelance manuscript editor. Her shorter works are listed in Best American Essays 2018 and 2016 and have appeared in the New York Times, O The Oprah Magazine, Longreads, Brevity, and other places. Learn more at www.LisaRomeo.net
Don’t Miss Lisa Romeo on Saturday, April 13:
Memoir writers excavate the past to recreate emotions, feelings, and events, weaving story from personal life experiences. But memory is often faulty. What happens when key memories create logjams, disappear into holes, or stubbornly refuse to surface? View Details…