Memory

There is a whole academic area in the humanities about memory. I don’t have that many profound things to say about it except that I have a poor one.

One of my life goals is to write a memoir. The problem with writing a memoir is that you need to remember your life events. While I am not saying I can’t remember any of them, I have forgot about a lot of them and others are quite hazy. Some things I don’t want to remember. It’s like how our mind will make us forget our dreams as a protective mechanism. I think some things I don’t remember or don’t remember well because my psyche is trying to protect me from negative or even traumatic memories.

But what I would like to say about memory is that it is always already filtered. Unless there is a videotaped copy, our memories always exist within particular limitations. Even if it is videotaped, there is no pureness when it comes to interpretation. Memory, to my mind, is unstable, incoherent and socially constructed. Although memory is unframed, people purposely try to put a frame around a particular memory. Often this is to make it more positive or to take some of the grit or trauma right out of it.

From an early age, I was taught “show don’t tell” when it comes to writing. When I write my memoir, I will be doing very little “showing.” I just don’t have that kind of strong memory. I don’t see anything wrong with telling. It still can be interesting even if it is not as finely detailed. It also brings to me the question of the line between a novel and a memoir. Obviously they are different genres and I don’t mean to render them identical at all. But they are closer than many of us think. To put it bluntly, people lie. Or to put it slightly more softly, people fib. Often they don’t even mean to. Memory is filtered and sometimes people remember what they want to remember rather than what actually happened. Even what “actually happened” can change based on different people’s reports or vantage points. There have been some high-profile cases of people who wrote “non-fiction” that turned out to be wholly or largely fabricated. “Creative” non-fiction is well named because the creative aspect often means a stretching of the truth. Sometimes a novel can be more truthful than an autobiography.

I guess what I am trying to get at is that there is no mechanism to represent absolute truth. As I approach my memoir, I do want to be as truthful as possible. I will not be making things up out of whole cloth. But I will also be very upfront in the beginning that this is a series of events from my own, limited vantage point and that absolute “truth” is irretrievable. Different people may well see it differently. I am limited by my own memory. There will be gaps in the story simply because they are things I don’t recall or things I see as uninteresting or unnecessary. Memory is an interesting thing. It will be something I will greatly rely on to write my memoir. But I will also rely on my analytical and critical skills because my “memoir” will be very political because that is how my brain works!

We need to re-think memory. The memory is not a computer. It is a fragile and vulnerable mechanism that is, above all, human and subject to human error, interpretation and intentional revision. Since memory is not a mere recorder, I don’t see this as a problem, but as something that makes memory infinitely more interesting and complex.