Sunday, February 3, 2013

Memory and Fiction

You are a storyteller. A weaver of fictions, a fabulist, a fibber, a bard. If you’re human, with a still-beating heart and firing neurons, you can’t help but be these things. That’s because you are, above all else, a rememberer. Your whole conception of yourself, your identity, is largely seated in your memories. You have a life-narrative: your triumphs and failures, your losses and loves. Your life is a story you tell yourself.

And you’re really good at that. Life is pretty chaotic, and mostly random. But look what you do with that mess: you neaten it up, organize it, discard nuance, and make meaning. If you’ve ever doubted in your storytelling abilities, keep this in mind: you are already an expert, because you have memories.

So there’s that’s the upside: you can create really good fiction out of nothing. The downside is, you’ve already done this, and it’s called “your life.” Every memory you have is a synthetic reconstruction of events, and is only loosely related to reality.

Where were you when you first heard about the events of 9/11? Or JFK’s assassination? If you were around and old enough to understand what was happening, you probably have a vivid memory of these events. I remember when the Challenger shuttle exploded: I was in middle school. I remember my blonde-haired teacher wheeling the AV cart into the room to show us, I remember the gasps and horrified giggles (you know how tweens giggle nervously at disaster), I remember the teachers all crying. But the minute I googled the event to check the year, I realized there was a problem with my memory: It was January 1986. I was not in middle school, I was in high school. I was halfway through my freshman year.

It turns out that your memories of that day are probably similarly flawed. Immediately after the shuttle disaster happened, one professor who had his wits about him asked about a hundred students to describe where they were and what was happening at the time. Who were they with? How did they feel? What were their thoughts? The students wrote their answers down. A few years later, he asked them to recount what they remembered about that day. Most people were convinced their memories were accurate, because the profound emotional reaction led to a “flashbulb” moment where memories are clear and searing. But when they compared their memories of the day with their own written accounts of that day, they discovered something unsettling. “A quarter of the accounts were strikingly different, half were somewhat different, and less than a tenth had all the details correct. All were confident that their latter accounts were completely accurate.”  When presented with the discrepancy, one of the students refused to believe it: “That’s my handwriting, but that’s not what happened.”

You, as interpreted by you
Our memories are not accurate records of past events. They are impressions. They are stories. Like all stories, they get lathered up in symbolism, imbued with meaning. Characters in the story are enlarged or shrunk. The hero of the story — you — is likely to be made more heroic. Or, if you’re one of those, antiheroic. (Maybe you’re the Holden Caulfield or your own story.) The seemingly irrelevant bits are edited out … other bits are invented from scratch.

In fact, you are so good at storytelling that you’ve probably already reconstructed everything you just read. If you had to walk into another room and recount it to someone else, you’d only get it partly correct. And then you’d be left with a memory of what you said to the person, which would lay on top of the memory of actually reading the words — further distorting the truth. It’s somewhat disturbing to realize that every time you retell an anecdote, or revisit an event in your memory, you are getting further and further from the actuality of what happened. Really important memories — the kind you revisit, the kind that seem so key to who you are — are even more likely to be highly fictionalized.

Now, don’t get me wrong: I don’t think truth is merely a construction, or that perception trumps reality. I think when we talk about an event — say, the Challenger explosion — there is a way it unfolded. A single reality. There are also all the stories that came out of that day: as many stories as there were humans to witness it, and even humans who didn’t witness it, but who constructed stories around the event later anyway. Some might say that each interpretation, each experience, each perception of that event is equally valid. The stories are all that exist. I do not hold this view, but I think that finding the real reality is effectively impossible. There is no way to access it: no human can ever find out every single aspect of an event, no perception is entirely objective. Some stories are closer to the reality than others, though, and the job of pursuits like journalism and science is to get as close as possible to that truth.

Back to you, the storyteller. What does this all mean for you? First, it means you should be much more skeptical of your memories, but much more faithful in your storytelling abilities. Consider dreams: your brain is essentially experiencing cognitive farts all night long (or at least during REM sleep), flashes and images and nothing that would be meaningful to anyone watching it unfold on a screen. But you, the dreamer, turn all that noise into a story. You are so good at storytelling that you can turn mind-chaos into an actual narrative! Sometimes this drama is so moving, or frightening, or funny, that you’ll remember it long after you wake up. 

That’s one powerful narrative machine you’ve got sitting on your shoulders. Take heart, and use it well.

Where were you when the Challenger exploded? On 9/11? How sure are you of those memories?


  1. I like to think about my past a lot. At first, I thought I was telling myself the absolute truth. Now, I know I can't. So I do my best to make sense of it in an interesting way.

    1. Tell the best story you can with the material you've got! I don't know if I'm blessed or cursed with my high-school journals. Which are copious and detailed. I have a pretty good record of daily events, and yet I am constantly reminded how wrong my memories are. Dang it: I liked some of those false memories!

  2. Does that mean memoirs aren't really memoirs?

    I thought I remembered where I was when Challenger blew up, but then I sat down to write a piece of flash fiction about that event and I had to look up the date. 1986? I thought I was in the sixth grade, right? No. I was two grades behind that one in 1986. Now I'm not really sure if I was in that same classroom watching that explosion with those kids. I want to say that I do know where I was when Columbia went down, but now you have me questioning my own memory...

    1. I'd say it's funny that we were both so wrong about the Challenger, but apparently it's not odd: we are in good company!

      I think the distinction between "memoir" and "autobiographical fiction" is very wobbly. It's probably safer for a writer to label a memoir the latter, or call it "a novel from life" as Sheila Heti did with her latest work. (Which I blogged about here: People expect something out of a memoir that is probably unrealistic: they expect accuracy.

  3. Fascinating subject, Sister Steph. You've made me question everything I thought I remembered (ha!) This has been a wake up call for me since I thought I had very good memory!!!

    Your portion about dreams reminded me of "cinematic" dreams (have you have these?) where you're not even in them but you're watching scenes as though they were part of a movie. I sometimes write them down when I wake up (thinking they would make a gripping novel) but when I go back to them years later, I can't understand what was so compelling about them in the first place!

    1. I had one of those cinematic dreams just last night, Lorena! They can be kind of fun, especially if you're somewhat aware you are dreaming. But yes, they feel much more meaningful right after the dream then they do a week or so later. I think there's something about that dream-state that makes everything seem deeply meaningful ... even nonsense. I want to say that's a function of the temporal lobe ... I vaguely remember seeing a video about a neuroscientist, Ramachandran, who figured out that if you stimulate that area of the brain, the subject feel suffused with a sense of deep meaning and purpose. It's like the brain's mysticism room.

      Which makes me wonder ... are we tapping into that bit of the brain especially, when we write fiction?


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