Exploring Truth-the scary realities of revision in memoir

Photo by Chelle at Morguefile.com

I just finished taking a class online about issues of truth in writing fiction and nonfiction. By nonfiction, this class meant memoir. The teacher talked about using truth (our lives) to color and form our fiction; we were also going to use craft strategies used in fiction to color our memoir.

Color my memory. Eek!

Which brings me to an existential crisis. It’s about me and my memory. My distrust of my memory. I’m now having a moral dilemma about writing about myself at all.

I was writing about scenes from a time in my life when I was ten years old, maybe eleven. I remember the situations happening. At least I’m pretty sure they did. And as I wrote and rewrote and added color to the scenes, sensory details, dialogue, the scenes came to life for me. Became more real to me as the writer as well as to the reader. They felt true. And then I would change it, color it differently, and a new truth emerged, nuanced with situation.

I’m not sure what truth is. Or if it even exists. And this isn’t even about politics or the news industry!

How much of what I remember really happened? How much have I created for myself to explain myself to myself? Memory is so scary. I’ve been to several lectures, heard talks and read articles about how people often see one thing and convince themselves that it’s something else entirely. Eyewitness reports are simply not reliable. People rewrite their memories. And here’s the thing: they aren’t even lying. They are creating truth.

One of my classmates kindly wrote this to me in response to my wondering if I can call my memoir writing “nonfiction”:

“I think it is nonfiction if it conveys a truth of events and their impact on your life.  I think to the extent you have changed details or characters, it is still nonfiction unless the reason you changed them was to change the emotional truth.”

It’s quite possible, maybe even probable, that Brett Kavanaugh and Dr. Ford both believed that their truths were accurate. Certainly they both seemed emotionally believable in their versions of what happened. But they couldn’t both be right. There is such a thing as reality, isn’t there?

Isn’t there?

I am so eager to hear your thoughts on this.

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8 Responses to Exploring Truth-the scary realities of revision in memoir

  1. wendy walker says:

    Fascinating… I notice the discrepancies most when sharing memories with family and friends who shared the events … they often have colored in the memory very differently that I… I just saw a “Nature” episode on CBC with David Suzuki about brain research on memory and false memory… It showed people being coached into a false memory by closed eye creative visualization which allowed them to color their memory with guided imagination… Most ended up believing the guided false memory was true… mmmm… But I wouldn’t hold a novelist to task if they presented a life memory as part of a storyline… as my dad would stay.. “don’t ruin a good story with the truth”… which ties into the deeper truth of myth…

    • WW says:

      I agree that the way to avoid the issue is to claim all I write is fiction. But then that somehow lessens the impact of sharing an inner truth, doesn’t it? Fiction can be so very powerful and of course also deals with Truth in its essence, but I have a different reaction to a story when I believe it actually happened. I forgive the writer for writing flaws I might otherwise have gotten cranky about, for instance, but I think the main issue is that I get a heady sense of voyeuristic thrill, like peeking through a lit window on a dark night.

  2. Jan Cavitt says:

    Makes sense that more vividly coloring our memories brings them to life, and then changing the colors reveals a new life. I love reflecting on the quantum physics idea that all the Universe is illusory. Our memories are just our own take on what was real at the time. They might be based on what we need in the moment when we reflect on them, or they might serve to build a case to prove a point. And it’s hard to nail down ‘facts’ (as in Ford/Kavanaugh). Even what was once regarded as ‘fact’ has to be changed with time e.g., in science, so ‘reality’ is constantly shifting. So, another question – what is a lie?

    • WW says:

      That issue with science dealing with “fact” up until the moment those facts are proved wrong has always fascinated me–and allowed me to believe in magic! I think “lie” is easier to define. It’s a matter of intent–a lie is presenting something as the truth when you know it is not.

  3. Garrison Keillor talked about the moment that he realized that he could change the trajectory of a tomato in his stories. In real life, his sister threw a tomato at him. In his story (which is at least told to sound true), he threw it at her.

    The scenario I have the most trouble with is the “recovered memory” of something alleged to have been so awful that the person suppressed the memory. The potential for those memories to feel absolutely real to the person having the memory but not to have any content that a video camera could have taped is frightening, when people then go on to assume that the event remembered must have happened and to shape their relationships with the other people in the remembered event in accordance with their new “memory”.

    This is not what I understand to have happened in the Ford/Kavanaugh situation. But I guess that maybe he could have reshaped his memory of his high school and college drinking to move “I can’t remember what happened last night,” to “I can’t remember ever drinking so much that I couldn’t remember what happened. Surely I was always in control of my actions, despite drinking with the guys.” Still…

    • WW says:

      I don’t know enough about “recovered memory,” though I certainly recognize the scenario you describe. But just because a memory is not able to be verified doesn’t mean it didn’t happen. That’s what’s so scary. It’s one person’s word against another’s. It leaves just about everyone with a foul feeling inside: how do we know what to believe, who to believe, and to what extent to believe them? It’s such a challenge to keep an open mind and, at the same time, stand up for what I think is right. And to support people I love at the same time!

  4. Wayne Ude says:

    I tend to agree with the friend who said it was legitimate to make changes to get at the emotional truth as you explore meanings and effects. Sometimes the bare facts aren’t enough to convey that. Sometimes more complete background will add to meaning when we come to the bare facts, but sometimes not. I don’t think that you can insert a physical beating that never happened in order to get at the severity of a reaction, but you can heighten the SORT of thing which did happen. Of course, you can always compare reactions–“I felt as though I’d been beaten, though in fact no one had laid a finger on me.” Memory is untrustworthy. Whenever I get together with my two sisters and we talk about our childhoods, I’m amazed at how unreliable their memories are. So of course I have to go with mine, even though there’s the barest possibility that they might be right.

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