Two things have gotten me thinking about the nature of memories: the recent controversy over the now-discredited A Million Little Pieces
and the continual slog through mom’s stuff.
For those of you who missed the hooplah, James Frey recently admitted that parts of his bestselling “memoir” were made up or exaggerated, a revelation that has sparked much discussion on the pages of The New York Times
about the nature of Truth and a publisher’s obligation to discern it. Perhaps it’s a bad week to relaunch my efforts to sell my own motherhood memoir Imperfect Serenity
, though that’s my goal. Aside from wanting to sell the book I worked so hard on, I want to defend memoirs and memories, even though both are often imperfect. I’m not defending lying, mind you. Saying that you did hard time in jail, to impress the reader (as Frey did) is clearly unethical. It does
matter that he made stuff up, and whatever redemptive message the book contained is tarnished by the revelations.
What’s interesting to me as a writer is the more typical dilemma of memoirists, the need to give specific details to evoke a scene when one’s memory of those details may be shaky. For example, I remember the leader of a writing workshop saying, “If you’re writing about the first time you had sex in the back of a blue Chevy, don’t get hung up wondering if the car was really blue. If you stop while you’re writing to wonder, ‘Or was it green?’ you’re going to loose what was really important about that experience.” I agree with him, for the kind of personal writing we were doing. Obviously if I were a reporter describing a crime, whether the car was blue or green would actually matter. Likewise, if I was quoting a politician in the paper, getting the words exactly right would be important. But in the above quote from the writing teacher, I haven’t used notes or a tape recording to confirm his exact wording. I’m using my memory of what he said over ten years ago and, more importantly, what struck me as important about it. Maybe the example he gave was actually a blue Mustang, but I’m pretty certain I’m accurate about his main point, that a memoir writer is striving for an emotional truth that is different from the kind of truth a reporter pursues.
It’s emotional truth I want to defend, first of all for myself as a writer, even if no one ever reads my work. Even if Imperfect Serenity
is never published (which I still trust it will be), the two years I spent rehashing my memories and trying to discern the patterns they revealed were well spent. For example, reliving the first months of Luke’s life, when I was angry and short-tempered and overwhelmed by the needs of two young children, made me more aware of my own limitations, more compassionate toward others, and ultimately a bit better as a mother. This is why Buddhist teacher Thich Nhat Hahn suggests that everyone should write an autobiography. Writing about one’s life, in a blog or a book, can be a spiritual practice, if we’re honest with ourselves. Frey may have sold millions of copies of his story, but if made up his past he cheated himself out of the memoir writer’s richest reward.
What we get out of reading each other’s experiences is a whole other question. At the moment I’m more focused on what I should learn from my mother’s life based on what she kept and what memories her possessions evoke. Much of what she kept was rarely used, and I’m left wondering why she held onto so much. Some of it was a scarcity mentality. (You can never have too much Tupperware or too many rubber bands.) But some of it was clearly sentiment. Yesterday I found a drawer with unused wedding gifts, a silver plate and a silver gravy pourer, both in their boxes with cards from people I’ve never heard of. Mom also kept an assortment of ash trays with shamrocks on them, even though no one has smoked since my Dad died seventeen years ago. Finding a white linen tablecloth, now stained yellow at the decades-old creases, seemed symbolic. I’d rather ruin a tablecloth by using it than by keeping it unused.
A few hours at my mom’s inspired me to come home and try to get rid of some of my own stuff. I unearthed a musty box that contained my high school yearbook and my Setswana language books from my Peace Corps training. I found a few papers I was able to recycle, but most of it I held onto, the way my mom held onto the shamrock ash trays. Partly it’s the hope that I’ll actually go back to Botswana some day, and I’ll be able to use those twenty-year-old books to brush up on my Setswana. But partly I think it’s holding onto fragments of memory that have faded. Learning Setswana was very important to me as a Peace Corps trainee. I prided myself on speaking the language better than most of the white folks around, and now I only remember a few stock phrases that I occasionally practice in the car. If I can’t speak Setswana any more, does that mean that I’m no longer that young idealist? If I hold onto the books, can I still claim her as myself?
Perhaps memory is most important for its influence on the present. The Setswana books are most useful if they inspire me to actually plan that trip back to Africa or, absent that, to continue educating other Americans about Africa as best I can. The silver tray (the one wedding present I kept) would earn its space in the cabinet if it inspired a dinner party, along with the tablecloth, if the stains bleach out. And my memories of parenthood are best kept alive if they inspire me to continue to try to be a better parent.