Many of the posts on this blog are about my memories. My theme, after all, is “one writer’s journey through life and time.” And what is our journey, if not a collection of memories?
Last week, the Wall Street Journal published an article entitled “The Value of a Flawed Memory,” by Sue Shellenberger. The thrust of the article was that even inaccurate memories help shape who we are.
Ms. Shellenberger writes:
“A growing number of researchers say memories are not just a storehouse for facts but also a creative blend of fact and fiction that helps people tell meaningful stories about their lives, set goals and envision the future in a realistic way.
“It is commonly believed that storing a memory is like making a video, but long-term memories are never literal replays. They’re mental constructions of facts, inferences and imagined details that people patch together after the fact.”
A creative blend of fact and fiction. A mental construct patched together of facts, inferences, and imagined details. It sounds so amorphous. Yet this is who we are—this weaving of what really happened, what we think happened, and perhaps even what we wish had happened.
As a lawyer, I saw many examples where two credible witnesses swore that opposite events had occurred—the light was red, no it was green. I have experienced this in my own memories as well, where one family member recalls something one way, and another recalls it completely in reverse.
I have memories that probably are not really memories. For example, my younger brother was born when I was just seventeen months old. It’s doubtful I have any real memory of when he was born. Yet I can feel myself sitting in the chair with him when he was just days old—the shiny chintz of the fabric cover, the soft flannel of his pale blue blanket. And I hear my grandmother telling me what a good big sister I am.
Could this be real? Or did I construct it later from the picture and from the constant retellings of the story by my parents and grandparents?
Does it matter? The Shellenberger article is quite clear—it doesn’t matter. Whether our memories are accurate or inaccurate, real or imagined, psychologists say they shape us. They form our self-identity. They help us set our goals in life. They create cohesion in our lives and help us make sense of the world around us.
So whether I remember my brother’s birth or not, the story became that I was a good big sister.
I write novels (fiction) and memoir (non-fiction). But I keep my novels historically accurate and I embellish my memories in this blog to tell a story. As I wrote in one early post, the French use the same word “histoire” for both fiction and history. Similarly, “mémoire” in French can mean memory or report.
The line between fact and fiction is blurry. Sometimes the blurring just happens. Sometimes we blur it on purpose.
When have your memories turned out to be false? Does it matter?