RSS Feed

Writing from memory when your memory sucks

I may have discovered a stumbling block to my writing endeavors. It’s my memory, which kind of sucks. I swear, I can’t tell you all the things I’ve forgotten.

Seriously, I can’t.

Recently I was getting excited about an idea I had to write a book of essays on my father, organized semi chronologically through afflictions. Chapter one: Alcoholism or My father is a floor mat. Chapter 2: C is for Cancer. Chapter 3: Drugs are fun! Hey, let’s do them all! Chapter 4: Back operations and body casts. Chapter 5: Paranoia, anxiety, depression, oh my. Chapter 6: Holy shit, what happened to your colon? Chapter 7: I’ve fallen and I somehow manage to get up to do it again and again and again…Chapter 8: Is that a pain pump, or are you just happy to see me?

Now I know you’re just dying to read what will clearly turn out to be the feel good book of the summer, but the problem is that when I go over it all in my mind, it just lumps together into a pile of suffering; a giant of tumor of addictions and ailments. Which came first the back operation or the depression, the drugs or the pain? I can’t remember specifics. Was the heart attack 1996 or 1997?

So how can I write about it honestly when I can’t even really remember it? Can that be considered creative non-fiction – me flubbing the details but nailing the emotion?  Maybe, but I don’t think so.

That’s why I used to only write fiction. Fiction is fabulous. You don’t know something, you make it up! Well, maybe not if you write historical fiction or technical stuff, but generally, in fiction your imagination is your memory.

Wouldn’t it be great if you could do that in real life? Damn, I can’t find the keys… why they’re right there on the table, silly. Nervous about a job interview, well don’t be, you’re going to nail it. Not in the mood to make dinner, you’re so lucky, your spontaneous, amazing husband is about to walk in early with take-out from your favorite restaurant.

Having the power to create a story is such a gift, but somewhere during the creation you have to give up some of that power as well. You go in thinking your character is going to rob a bank or betray a friend, but then the characters take on a life of their own and all of sudden, you’re not making all the decisions, they are. There’s no relying on memory; you just need to choose from as many paths as your creativity and your characters allow. If it’s true for the storyline, it’s true.

So given my limitations, I’m not really sure how to proceed on the project regarding my father, or whether I should proceed at all. Of course even with non-memory challenged people, there’s still selective memory and varied perspectives to contend with. We really do create a lot of our past according to our emotional recollection and not necessarily what actually happened or when, so maybe there is a case for my version of truth.

I should probably just go back and edit my most recent manuscript of sex and betrayal in the suburbs. It’s a whole lot lighter and sometimes reality is really not as good as the reality you create in fiction.

Now, if I can just remember where I put those pages…


Yup, last place I'd expect them.

Yup, exactly where you’d expect a manuscript to be – on the floor in the corner, of course.


About Ice Scream Mama

Mama to 3 boys, wife to Mr. Baseball and daughter of a sad man. I have a double scoop every day.

51 responses »

  1. We’re all there beside you with some kind of cognitive decline, whether small or larger. The main thing for you is to proceed. Whatever you write will be from your heart and that is something that is worth writing about. Your story needs to be told, even if you can’t remember exactly when things happened. Proceed!

  2. “I can’t tell you all the things I’ve forgotten.”

    Um…duh. How could you? 😉

  3. Okay, now that I’ve got my sarcastic comment outta the way….do you have anyway to look up the specifics? Medical records, perhaps? The memories of other people?

    I often find when writing blog posts about past events there are certain specifics I can’t remember and I just write them the best I can. Hell, if you need to make up your own dates for certain events only you would know that you’ve done so.

    I think, ultimately, that if this a project you want to pursue that you should go for it!

  4. I can just feel it. You want this done. Go for it mama. Scrape your brain. Ask people. Double check receipts. Or to hell with the dates. It’s the story that counts. You can do it!

  5. Phyllis Horowitz

    You should write about him. It’s cathartic for you, and he’d be fascinated to read it and correct you and add ailments you overlooked. This ‘disease of the week’ pattern has been his hobby and lifestyle for twenty years – it can be considered a form of ‘entertainment’ for him: sharing his never – ending stories of varied health issues, past, present, and even future! He has the talent (and experience) to match and ‘one up’ any suggested illness you might mention you experienced; from a far-worse common cold than was ever known to mankind, to ailments unknown and medically undocumented in the annals of medical documentation! If you advise him of the death of another person, you will be interrupted by his thoughts of his own demise. If you let him know you are recovering from major surgery, it will magically take only moments before you are hearing of his past-or latest surgical procedure – real or only a possibility, and your own story will be as lost as his glasses. If he’s not sleeping his days away, he’s just managed to pick himself up from the last fall to the floor. His hoarding alone would provide you with at least two chapters. Even his childhood escapades and nickname -“Scaper” – portended his future of medical issues and emergencies. You’ve got tons of stories and experiences and history, and an aunt who would be honored to assist you (proofing? editing? sound boarding?) Go for it! Hugs to all. Love from me.

  6. I’ve had the same problem. Oh, I wish i could find my journals!

  7. So there’s a woman in my writing group who had the same issue. Her memoir came out beautifully and she gave herself permission to let it be murky in spots and to use her imagination to fill in the blank. The emotional intensity with which you write about your father– I remember EVERY SINGLE POST– is something that resonates with me and your writing is just superb in those moments. I vote that you work on that and give yourself permission to not have to get it all “accurate.” And Twindaddy makes a good point: you could check records and talk to family members. But I’d read it for your voice and your experience.

  8. Natalie DeYoung

    I have the worst memory for incidents and dates – I better remember feelings, smells and sounds. That’s why when I write, I feel free to change whatever details I need to. I call it “fictionalized memoir.” 😉

  9. I used to be obsessed with “getting it right” when it came to my recollections of events in my writing. The truth is, a memory begins to form as soon as the event has transpired, and with each moment that passes it morphs and changes a little bit. Like outlawmama said above, you have an uncanny ability to capture the emotional intensity of an experience, and in the end, that’s what binds the story-teller to her/his audience. Emotional truth. That’s a gift that many writers lack.

    Also, there are lots of reasons why we *forget*. Sure – some have to do with aging and/or a reduced ability to retain information, but lots of it has to do with our innate desire to protect ourselves from pain and trauma. You make light of your experiences with your dad’s addiction(s)/failing health (as evidenced by your chapter titles); but that is some painful shit! I’m imagining that memories of him come to you in bits and pieces – not fully formed. Maybe you can build the setting around the pieces. For example, piece of memory when you were five . . .maybe you recall something specific that your father said/did, and maybe that you were wearing a bathing suit. You can build your scene around what you know. *Bathing suit* – I remember one I had that was covered in flowers. Set your scene by describing that. Or, *bathing suit* – I must have been at the beach (describe that/insert another memory) etc.

    Blah, blah, blah. I apologize for my verbose comment. You’re a wonderful writer. Don’t sweat the small stuff, just speak your truth. It’s going to be great. Karen

  10. I had the same trouble remembering the details of my mom’s life – lucky for me she is still alive and we had several great interview sessions last month. Have you read “Glass Castle”? and if so you know she couldn’t have remembered all that detail. What you do remember is rich ground for fiction… I would use it for something.

  11. Honestly I would want to read that book based on the chapters you’ve sorted out!

  12. Wow! I would imagine that the more you write about your dad the more you will remember, which for me is why there are some things that are still too painful to write about. I don’t always want to go back! Beautiful piece! Sending love! xo

    • thank you. and maybe i’d remember or maybe all the stories i’ve heard will become the truth. i don’t know if it matters anymore. my husband says to stay far away from this topic.

  13. I’ve been wanting to write a book documenting all the things my band has been through, but I keep thinking I’ll never remember it all. Luckily, my husband wrote a lot down on his calendar and I can try to get my bandmates to put their heads together to remember details. Sometimes I think just starting and getting into it will get the memories flowing. Maybe that’s something you can try.

    • see… now i’ve learned it doesn’t matter. whatever blanks your brain fills in is your truth. i don’t know how much the details matter if you get the story / emotion right. get on it!

  14. Spare t.y we are long forgotten twins. My memory sucks, and I’ve been working on a memoir. Events happen all within a small span of time, but details are, ummmmm, foggy. I figure that The Bloggess wrote a best selling “Mostly true” memoir. That will work for me, too. Especially the best selling part.

    Of course I’ve forgotten to work on it for, I forget how long.

  15. Here’s the thing… No matter what genre you decide to lump it in, it will be worth reading, because I like your style. I, too, struggle with ordering events, but that’s because life never happens logically or systematically. I like Kathy’s advice on just writing to jog your memory, but even if that doesn’t work, I think you should see where it takes you. Nicely done.

  16. You’re so funny!

  17. mommytransformations

    I worry a lot about whether “my version” of events is true to life as well. But as you mentioned, there are multiple versions of truth. There have to be. We all come into events with different backgrounds and experiences, and as a result we all walk away from the same experience with a slightly different take on it. I say write it. Feel it. Just do it. At the very least it will help you find the peace you need in the face of all your father’s illnesses.

  18. I just assume memoirs are fudgy in places — maybe even a lot of places. Even when I’ve tried REALLY hard to be truthful about childhood events, when I ask my parents or others about the events, it’s always different from my own recollections. But which, if any, is Truth? And how much does it matter?

  19. I so agree with what others here have said: 1. Write it! 🙂 2. By writing you will remember more. 3. Memoirs are by their nature fuzzy…I always think that since the name of the genre shares a root with the word “memory”, the trick is to be faithful to your own memory rather than any kind of absolute truth.

    • thank you. i think you’re right. i was getting too hung up on the particulars… and really that’s not my strength. there are no absolutes, only what we believe and feel in our hearts.

  20. I have been there, God knows. Here is what I do. I write just a single scene, just one. Then, I let it sit. I start to flesh it out and then in the edges more details begin to emerge. Things I had forgotten. It could be that you just describe the hospital room, what it looked like and then you remember the smells and from the smells, you remember what was said. It’s like shining a flashlight and you walk to the furthest spot you can see. When you get there, you shine it ahead of that and before you know it, you’ve walked the entire path. Good luck!

  21. I can’t find my first journal from my semester in the UK. I have a folder of emails that someone saved for me, but I miss having the details that I’m sure I captured. I’ve been looking things up online when I can, but I decided to focus on the feeling and essence than getting it exactly right. I mean, is anyone going to cite your memoir in a research paper?
    I think some pretty amazing writers have given you some great feedback. What we are all trying to say is: no excuses! Write!

  22. This post makes me feel the discomfort of wondering what my children remember from their younger years. It also reminds me to be grateful that their father did stop drinking in time to retain his health. And, it finally answers that nagging curiosity I’ve had about why you describe yourself as the daughter of a sad man.

  23. Big YES to editing your manuscript, because it’s already awesome. But seriously, I have this problem too, with the hard stuff. I can tell you all the characters in every romance novel I have ever read, but when I think about some of my harder times, it all runs together in a blur of emotion. So I’m trying to be better about documenting, at least for myself, that hard stuff, because even though it’s painful now, I know that someday, I’ll want to remember.

    • thank you. i’m hard at work on the easy stuff. it really is more fun to write but the hard stuff is where you really get the great emotional writing. it’s just so much more daunting. i say yes to documenting, that way it’s there when you’re ready.


Talk to me... Come on.

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: