Writing to Remember

hotelI write for several reasons. Some days I write because I’ve stepped into a place, and my heart has stopped. My breathing turns short and shallow and I know there is a story to be told.

And some days I write for a few of the same reasons Margaret Atwood has said she writes:

To set down the past before it is forgotten.
To excavate the past because it has been forgotten.

I am forgetful. Painfully so. I often call one of my sisters or my best-friend-for-ages and start the conversation with, “Do you remember…?” Both my children were born on the 22nd day of their respective months, I am sure, because some power in the Universe knew I would have trouble keeping track of birthdays. On a given day, I cannot recall what I had for dinner the night before.

I accept my cloudy memory. But this past weekend, while on a trip with my sisters and my cousins, it became clear just how insufficient the brain can be when storing and recalling events.

When you’re in the thick of immediate family, conversations turn intimate. One night, we talked about my mother, her death, those days when we went through her things. I brought up how my sisters and I discovered cash in her linen cabinet buried under the towels, waved my hands and talked about it with complete confidence. But then my sister stopped me and said, “No, that didn’t happened at her house. We were at the bank. It was hidden inside her will. In her safe deposit box.” Until then, I could see–plain as day–the three of us standing in her bathroom, a hand lifting the towels, and someone saying, “Look.”

Both my sisters agreed we were at the bank, and of course it makes more sense. As they described their own recollections, my brain began to put the pieces in the right order (and place) again.

Still, it was strange. I kept asking, why when I remember that moment would I put us in the bathroom instead of at the bank?

Today, I’m asking: Does it matter?

Last summer, I took a one-week workshop on writing creative nonfiction with Lisa Romeo, in which she talked about that exact aspect of writing nonfiction: our fallible minds and why some details don’t matter. In her lesson, she asks:

Are you — when you are writing memoir, personal essay and other forms of creative nonfiction — creating an official document, meant to preserve in perpetuity the accuracy of a specific event down to the last detail? …what matters and what doesn’t to the story you are telling?

I’ve written the beginnings to an essay about those weeks after my mother died, partly to “set down the past” and partly to “excavate the past.” Now, when I go back to that piece for rewrites, I will have to ask what helps or halts the story (meaning what do I need to include or what can I leave out). Would it matter to a reader where I stood more than what I saw? More importantly, what is the story I really want to tell? Sometimes in a personal essay, the when and where matter much less than the why.

What do you do when memory fails?

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3 Responses to Writing to Remember

  1. Cathy H says:

    Perhaps the definition of a memory can change depending on whether it was your personal recollection or the “video recording” recollection. I prefer the personal version as it’s been richly embellished over time (by your collective life experiences)!

  2. I think this is why I keep a journal. I can’t trust my memory all the time. Now that my mother is suffering from advanced dementia, I can see her memory being erased. It is so sad to see. I’m glad she kept journals as well.

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