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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.