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“We are more than the sum of our memory traces.”

April 29, 2011

On FB today, I saw a fellow VCFA student and a VCFA professor wall-discussing the general public’s view of memoir, as well as the often-critical view that fellow writers take on the genre. Since the latest memoir fell to stoning, phrases like memoir and ethics and writing the truth and fake memoir have once again hit high Googling numbers. The Facebook conversation brings up the question of how readers define memoir and how that definition might not be entirely accurate. And I completely agree that we are trying too hard to find a concrete definition for memoir, and that we’re criticizing memoirs as not fitting that definition before we even have one. (We’re putting the cart full of stones ready to chuck at a writer before the horse has even born.)

One underlying problem in how memoir is understood by readers, I’ve come to believe, actually resides in the general public’s definition of “memory.” Or, more accurately, readers don’t always “get” memoir because they don’t always “get” memory. And they don’t get memory because of their lack of interest in perusing the dense neuroscientific research (understandable) and their lack of access to digestible information and new studies about memory (disappointing) and their lack of awareness of the really cool memory books out there (tragic).

In truth, there are plenty of books about memory that anyone can read. Books that do not require advanced degrees or a nimble psychological or neuroscientific vocabulary.
Books that illuminate, question, challenge, and corral. It is my fervent wish that everyone, EVERYONE, who reads a memoir, would also read a book about memory. How neat would it be to see them sold in two-book packages. Or grouped on tables, ten memoirs surrounding one central memory guide. Awesome.

Psychologist Elizabeth Waites published Memory Quest: Trauma and the Search for Personal History in 1997. [I love the book, but hold a grudge that she took that title, which I so would have taken for myself.] It’s a comprehensive book about how memory functions and what happens when memory goes haywire. From the book:

“We are more than the sum of our memory traces. At any given moment, it is not just the encoding, storage, and retrieval of information, but also the interplay of personal needs, motives, and abilities that determines our recollections of things past. In approaching such questions as how any particular individual can distinguish between what is true and what is false in memory, it is always important to keep in mind what is human and what is personally relevant as well as what is possible.”

This quote can and should remain with us while we read memoirs. Memoirs, as I just said on my fellow VCFA-er’s wall, are a literary arm of memory, an artful expressions of neuroscience. Books that explain (and investigate, and wonder at, and are confounded by) memory are, therefore, awfully good companions to memoirs. I see them as akin to other guidebooks: it seems not only fun but beneficial, maybe even crucial, to read about Renaissance art while canvassing Italy and taking photographs of the great works.

If we really understand memory, can we ever be so hard on the genre of memoir again? Memoirs are as complex, creative/created, flexible, and vulnerable as the memories (in the whole-memory sense, the whole of memory’s flabbergastingly complicated system) from which they come. Memoirs are writers’ attempts to capture in words even just a tiny part of what’s going on up there in that brain. And no, not everything that’s going on up there in that brain is what you might call “absolute truth.” [And yes, I AM interested in those memoirists who blatantly make things up. Why do they? What’s going on up there in that brain that compels them to fabricate scenes? Do they seek an explanation for something and can’t find it in their lives or memories so they create it? Do they need to justify actions or forget mistakes? Do they want to express a complete idea and need to borrow from a variety of sources, some remembered and some created, to do so? Do they just want to get published? Fascinating, no?]

Memoirists, I think, like all the other brave humans who try to wrestle memory into one place long enough to examine or explain or express it, ought to be given some kind of commendation. Maybe even a royal title.

Other books on memory I recommend:

Patricia Bauer, Remembering the Times of Our Lives

Jonathan Cott, On the Sea of Memory

Richard McNally, Remembering Trauma

Daniel Schacter, The Seven Sins of Memory and Searching for Memory

Try it. Read a book about memory, then read a memoir. It’s really, really cool.

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