In today's Building Blocs post, US creative nonfiction writer Penny Guisinger considers the ways that memory can be risky.

Image source: Flickr / pagedooley

I met Darcy for dinner recently, a friend I had not seen for over a decade. I was travelling and in need of a place to sleep near the airport, which she had, and we made a plan to meet at the sushi place. I was newly sober (again) and as I drove the two-hundred-plus miles to Portland, Maine, I began to feel familiar anxiety. We were meeting in a nice restaurant. What would I do when she ordered a drink? I began to remember all the drinking we had done together. The bottles of wine we had emptied. The laughing. The bonding. How would she react when I ordered something else? How would I react when she enjoyed her velvety red wine right in front of me? This was old/new ground for me. I called up the steadiest resolve I had and drove on.

Hours later, we were both midway through our second glasses of Diet Coke when I managed to work my sobriety into the conversation. She said, “Oh, I know how that is. I haven’t had a drink since I was a teenager.”

This is how memory works.  Most of the time, it doesn’t. Our brains just aren’t tooled for “objective truth,” if there is any such thing. We remember whatever is convenient, viewing our memories through time-smudged eyeglasses, filling in the blanks with whatever is needed to tell the story we’re telling ourselves. That evening of the sushi, my internal narrative was that I was the only alcoholic in the world, that everyone else was “normal,” that I was some sort of exception, that I was special. I got it wrong. Does it mean I’m a liar?

As creative nonfiction writers, we are told, over and over, to get the facts right, and can feel excoriated when we don’t. In one particular piece I wrote, I absolutely told the cold truth about my addiction, and I was excoriated for that too. (Okay, so it was just one troll in the comments section, but it felt like a full-on excoriation.) It feels like we can’t win. My conclusion: we should stop trying to please this amorphous, multi-headed creature known as “the readers/public/critics” (referred to here as “the blob”). We should write our art. We should do it as close to our memories as we can, but that’s often still far from the facts.

The blob is the thing we fear when we have to make a creative leap in our work. Left unfettered to whisper threats in our ears, it can be completely silencing. When we can’t quite remember the sequence of events in a timeline, so we go with whatever works best, it’s the blob we think might find out. When we can’t remember what color Aunt Sherrie’s hair was on that particular Easter, and so we go with “auburn,” it’s the blob we fear will go dig up some photo somewhere to prove, that year, Sherrie was a blonde.  If we can easily find that photo ourselves, then sure: get the color right. But it’s not the point. The blob needs to sign up for the fact that memory is fallible and CNF is art.

I put forward two principles: (1) The blob would not even like a world in which every memoirist worried every story down to the stub of the last fact, and (2) no one can tell a story without telling a lie. If writers of creative nonfiction were to tell the whole truth, including every possible fact, out of fear of the blob’s wrath, narratives would become unreadable. They would be filled with inane details about the color of everything, mundane lists of every activity of every hour, crazy-making accounting of boring conversations best forgotten and left out. And, as storytellers, as we make the necessary decisions to hone down our work to the minimums – to leave only our throbbing minds, laid bare to do their work on the page – we become liars. If I’m telling you the story of a phone call that brought terrible news, but I must first tell you what I was wearing, how many steps it took me to reach the phone, and all the ingredients of the smoothie I had to set down before picking up the handset, my reader blob will have put the story down before ever learning what news came into my ear that day. Who cares? To tell you a good story, I have to lie to you, and you should be grateful.

Here’s another truth: even when we try not to lie, we sometimes just flat out get it wrong. My memory of drinking bottle after bottle of wine with Darcy was absolutely clear – and it never happened. I have written about things that I thought happened, then removed them from subsequent drafts for fear of getting called out by the blob. Is this accountability or paranoia? Can it be both? If art is an interpretive act, am I repressing some essential part of the process? Or am I just made more honest? Can it be both? Did I sit across from that other friend, shaking salt into a tall glass of beer, or am I misremembering that summer day? Maybe it was water? Maybe Diet Coke? Maybe we never sat down together at all? But if the point of the story is that this friend was in the process of betraying me, does it matter what we were drinking?

At the same time, the devil might spring out of those details and cast doubt upon the whole story. We imagine that the blob might muse, “If she got the contents of the glass wrong, was she also wrong about the affair?” One solution is to own this uncertainty on the page. By bringing the reader into our own failings, we build credibility that allows the blob to give us the benefit of the doubt: everyone forgets some of the details, so maybe the trick is to be human about it. As writers, maybe part of our job is to tip our failing hand just enough to let readers in on the machinations of the flagging organ living between our ears. If we say it – I might have this wrong – then we’ve come clean.

In her book I Could Tell You Stories, author Patricia Hampl writes about the lens that imagination brings to memory. She writes, “Still, memory is not, fundamentally, a repository. If it were, no question would arise about its accuracy, no argument would be fought over its notorious imprecision…What memory ‘sees,’ it must regard through the image-making faculty of mind. The parallel lines of memory and imagination cross finally and collide in narrative.” I start to imagine a sordid affair taking place between memory and imagination. I imagine them as Scott and Zelda: forever sneaking in places together, getting drunk, and laughing at the tables they tip over. Artists both, and both flawed, but somehow made greater by their coming together. Memory steals the cash box, and imagination drives the getaway car.

I need to confess that the friend I met for sushi and Diet Coke at the beginning of this piece isn’t really named Darcy. Stories are perilous and she asked me to change it. It almost proves the point – her real identity was ancillary information to the heart of that anecdote. It just doesn’t matter. But I live up to the contract with this short, confessional paragraph. Is it enough? Is the blob happy? 

And yet…I still swear I remember pulling the cork and filling Darcy’s glass. Like that’s the way it happened.  I could almost convince myself that’s really her name.

Penny Guisinger lives and writes on the easternmost tip of the United States. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Fourth Genre, River Teeth, Guernica, the Brevity blog, Solstice Literary Magazine, Under the Gum Tree, Exit 7, and others. Her essay “Coming Out” was a finalist in the 2013 Michael Steinberg Essay Contest, and one called “Provincetown” was awarded an editor’s choice award from Solstice. Her work is appearing in two forthcoming anthologies, due out in 2015. She is the founding organizer of Iota: The Conference of Short Prose. Penny is a graduate of the Stonecoast MFA Program at the University of Southern Maine.


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Sam van Zweden was Writers Bloc’s Online Editor from 2013 - 2015. A Melbourne-based writer and blogger, her work has appeared in The Big Issue, Voiceworks, Tincture Journal, Page seventeen, and others. She’s passionate about creative nonfiction and cross stitch. She tweets @samvanzweden.