Yesterday, I told the story of how I got a picture back from a framer and didn’t recognize it because it looked so different with a frame: A fable for writers. While I’m in the mode of telling slightly embarrassing anecdotes that have an underlying message for the writing life, here is another one.
When I saw my friend Rachel recently for the first time in many months, the first thing I said was that I had thoroughly enjoyed the book she’d lent me—William Dalrymple’sNine Lives—and that I was sorry I hadn’t returned it yet. The first thing she said back was that she had no idea what I was talking about. She’d never lent me Dalrymple’s book, she told me. She’d never even heard of it, although now that she had, she admitted it sounded pretty good, and she’s putting it on her to-read list.
At first, I insisted. “Don’t you remember? You left the book with [our mutual friend] Jean to give to me.” I vividly recalled our conversation about the book, which was both detailed and animated. But Rachel was unwavering. We’d never discussed the book. She hadn’t left the book with Jean. She’d never even heard of the book.
Fortunately, Jean was standing nearby at that very moment. “Jean!” I called to her. “Didn’t Rachel leave that book about India with you to give to me?”
“Nope,” Jean said without hesitation. “That was Susan.”
So why did I have such a vivid recollection of Rachel recommendingNine Lives to me? Where on Earth had that conversation—so clear and detailed in my head—come from?
In case I sound a bit daft in this tale, let me hasten to say I’m hardly the only person who’s had a false memory or two. I had a professor years ago who clearly remembered himself as a ten-year-old listening to a baseball game on the radio, when the broadcast was interrupted with an announcement: the Japanese had just bombed Pearl Harbor. It wasn’t until he was in college that someone pointed out to him that baseball games aren’t played in December. Yet, the game was an essential part of his memory, and he was so convinced the memory was accurate that he launched into research to find out if some baseball game had been broadcast on December 7, 1941, even going to the archives of radio stations within listening distance of his childhood home. But the answer was clear: The memory, however vivid and convincing, was wrong. This experience led to a career: He became an expert on false memories.
The clarity of the conversation I remembered having with Rachel was significant to me as a writer because just that week my Creative Nonfiction class had been talking about the role of truth and facts. The text I'm using in the class, written by CNF heavyweight Lee Gutkind, starts with nearly 50 pages focusing on how much of nonfiction needs to be objectively accurate. According to Gutkind, all of it.
Gutkind condemns another major player in the world of CNF, John D’Agata, for openly stating that facts are not all that important. He criticizes David Sedaris for elaborating on dialogue, questions the accuracy of Augusten Burroughs' work, and attacks John Berendt for altering the chronology of events inMidnight in the Garden of Good and Evil. It’s not for nothing he titles his textbookYou Can’t Make This Stuff Up.
But the first question my students had was,how can you not? Let’s face facts: If you’re writing about a conversation that took place twenty years ago, you’re making the dialogue up. And if you’re writing about a conversation that took place this morning, you’re also making it up. Because even if you think you remember it, you don’t.
Psychologists once thought we stored snapshots of events in our brains, complete with specific and precise details. Some researchers even believed that we had an accurate memory of everything we'd ever experienced, even if we couldn't access it. But those ideas have long since fallen by the wayside. It's now been pretty well established that we patch together memories from bits and pieces. We stick in things that don’t belong, add things that never happened, and leave out large, important chunks. “I remember it as if it were yesterday,” we say, and what we really mean is, “I have all sorts of details in my head that could have come from just about anywhere.”
What I’m not saying here is we can just write anything and claim it’s true. As James Frey, Clifford Irving, and a host of others can tell you, that’s definitely not a good idea. What I am saying is that creative nonfiction is called creative for a reason, and it’s not just because we use literary techniques. It’s because memory itself is creative. Because even in the most honest account, we are, to a large extent, constructing the truth even as we write it.
Causes Jill Jepson Supports
Humane Society of the United States, Defenders of Wildlife, Interational Society for the Protection of Burros and Mustangs, National Wildlife Federation,...