Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Memoir and memory

Our house in Duluth, back yard in winter.
Some members of my family read this blog with interest. Some read it with anxiety--they fret about an invasion of their privacy. (Which I am trying hard to avoid without writing stories that make it seem as though I were an only child.) Some read it with disapproval, finding errors. They post corrections, or take me to task for not remembering things correctly. (But who's to know whose memories are correct?)

I am writing these from memory, doing virtually no research. (I did a lot of research for my book, and it still had a handful of mistakes; I'm sure that with no research there would have been hundreds more.)

Here are a few corrections family members have alerted me to since I started writing these stories of my Duluth childhood:

* The tureen that I said was Aunt Barbara's was not Aunt Barbara's; Aunt Barbara bought it for my parents as a present.

* I did not go down the basement steps in my Taylor Tot in St. Joe; that happened in Louisville.

* Ditto the incident with my ragdoll, JoJo: Louisville, not St. Joe. (I was born in Louisville and we lived there until I was about two and a half, when we moved to St. Joe for the summer.)

* The restriction on Christmas music did not get lifted on the day after Thanksgiving; we could only listen to Christmas music after Dec. 10.

As a journalist, these little errors make me deeply uncomfortable. We are taught to get the facts right, and here I am, playing fast and loose with them. Or am I? With these little stories, I am trying hard to remember what it was like to be five, six, seven years old. I am working on the feel of the time, or my memories of the feel of the time, or what I think to be and believe to be my memories of the feel of the time.

Of course I want the other stuff to be right, too: I would never deliberately set a story in St. Joe when it actually took place in Louisville. I would not misrepresent the provenance of a tureen on purpose. But when I do it by accident, when I confuse things inadvertently, then what?

At some point, if I were ever to do anything more with these stories, I'll go back and fix the errors. Maybe I'll do it anyway. But there are sure to be more mistakes; I'm aiming my mind back 40, 45, 50 years in the past, and it's not possible to remember everything exactly. I do not want to complicate my impressions with other people's memories, and so I am just writing things as I recall them.

But rest assured that I am not making anything up; I am not exaggerating or embellishing; I am trying my hardest to get the to the truth of the feeling. The facts can always be tidied up later.

That's what the memoirist in me says, anyway. The journalist in me is gnashing her teeth at every correction.


Erin said...

I have loved and reread each of your stories. Some of my favorite memories may be inaccurate too, but I'm not sure I want to know if that's the case. They are mine, as they are. Thank you for sharing your memories with us.

Green Girl in Wisconsin said...

One of the reasons why memoir is the trickiest genre to write in I think. There are other reasons, but this is a biggie.
Give yourself credit for more accuracy than not, though.

Pamela said...

I have some interesting conversations with my siblings -- Not so long ago I mentioned something to a sister and she had no recollection of it whatsoever. History is inaccurate because we are contaminated by time, relevance,observation etc. Our memories are real to us, though. Brush it off and keep on writing!

Indigo Bunting said...

From this morning's Writer's Almanac, which notes that it is Mary Karr's birthday, she says: "Memoir is not an act of history but an act of memory, which is innately corrupt."

laurie said...

thank you for that, Indigo.

kim-ode said...

I sense that these corrections to the record aren't being delivered in an especially generous spirit. That's unfortunate for them, and a challenge for you, but please continue to persevere!

Deborah said...

Your comments remind me of something a friend was telling me recently about his mother’s funeral. He talked about how some of the speakers didn’t seem to get the essence of his mom quite right.

He later realized that maybe they weren't actually describing his mom, but rather were projecting themselves onto the memories of her, sharing the memories that most validated who they themselves were. Maybe in writing memoir, we all end up doing the same thing, at least to some extent. I'm quite sure I do...

Eulalia (Lali) Benejam Cobb said...

Glad you got the tureen issue cleared up! Also, what's with Taylor Tots? My husband fell down a flight of steps in his as well. I hope they've been taken off the market.

And I agree with you completely about the nature of memoir. It's always, first and foremost, a story.

Canadian Chickadee said...

There's factual truth (water boils at 212; Columbus sailed the ocean blue in 1492) and there's emotional truth.

As a writer of memoirs and novels, I think emotional truth is more important....

And your writing certainly has that. I've been enjoying your stories.


laurie said...

thank you all for your comments and encouragement. the best of all possible worlds is both emotional and literal/factual truth, and that's what i'm striving for. not always making it, but striving, anyway.

Irene said...

It seems to me that these errors of no consequence make no difference to your stories at all and it's very nitpicky to point them out and make an issue of them. The core of your stories remains the same and is truthful and honest and that's the main thing. I would not worry about it one bit, Laurie.

Jim said...

It's not like you're making things up. Besides, there are numerous studies demonstrating that human memory is pretty darn fallible, so who's to say you're wrong and your siblings are right. I just wish one of my siblings was writing memoir pieces like this so I could enjoy them!

Jo's World said...

My mother was the eldest of 7 kids and I was an only kid. So what became interesting to me was my mother's memories vs. her youngest sister's. They were always poles apart as far as the story went, it was like they were not even part of the same family. So thats it, Laurie, you won't remember what your oldest sister recalls and what you remember won't seem right to her. But its your memory you are writing, not hers or your brothers. Just yours and it certainly won't be theirs.

Jo, Up North

Kim Randall Cox said...

When I was in 8th grade, my parents fought, Mama spent the night in a hotel in town, and I was convinced my parents were going to divorce. I was so upset at school my first hour teacher noticed. Neither my parents nor my brother remember this at all. But I sure do. Did it happen? Sure. The way I remember it? Who knows. But it is my memory and my truth. That is really all we can do.

That hotel is still there...I wonder if they have records from 1979?

Wisewebwoman said...

Memory is mainly emotion, Laurie.

On one single thing my family of six siblings agreed when a brother asked the question in the porch of my dad's house after he passed away.

He asked: Does any one of you recall a single happy Christmas in that house?

And in unity we all shook our heads.

The rest of it for us is always up for individual interpretation.

If they don't like it let them write their own memory.


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Pondside said...

Memory is a funny thing - especially when shared among three or more. I have one sister who just says 'you think what you want to think and I'll think what I want to think' - she is the one with whom the rest of us disagree most often. We laugh because she puts herself into past events that were clearly experienced by another sibling. On the other hand, another sister is about to publish another book, about which she says 'any family members who were still talking to me after the first two won't be talking to me after this one.'
Uh oh.

Blissed-Out Grandma said...

I completely understand your professional interest in getting the details right. But I've been very impressed by the richness of your recollections. You observed things closely and now write about them with great charm. You'll probably never know who's right about some of those details, and frankly they don't affect the essence of the story. So change the ones you think you should, and keep the rest. But keep on writing; you have a great project going here.

Far Side of Fifty said...

I smiled, I only write my memories too..and when you are little you can see things doesn't make them wrong...just different. After all the world will not stop turning because of a soup tureen..
I try not to step on feelings is really hard..sometimes I feel my freedom of speech is impinged by relatives who only have criticism and complaints. Hang in there! :)

Kate said...

Who is to say that the "corrections" are accurate and yours are not? Perhaps it is the other way around. Memory is a tricky thing; but, you are writing about YOUR memories and the "facts" may not always coincide with that of others. Fret not; they are your memories and your memoir. Write on...