Memories and Writing: The Act of Invention

When I read Louise’s post about her childhood memories, I had to laugh. Like Louise, my childhood memories are hazy. Former classmates are forgotten. Events never seem to have happened. My parents and sister will say, “Do you remember…” and I say, “Nope, not at all!” On a recent trip with a group of girlfriends, they were reminiscing about a camping trip from hell. It was raining, a woman came who was completely bossy, the booze was flowing.

“Wow, sounds like it was a quite a trip!” I said.

To a person, they stared at me. “You were on that trip,” one of the woman said. “Don’t you remember?”

As I thought about it, pieces fell slightly into place, but it was like a warped puzzle that wouldn’t lay quite flat. “Oh, yeah, of course. I totally do!” I lied.

I, too, was not looking forward to writing this post. (Okay, so who picked this topic? Heather? Aya? Why do I feel like this has Abby written all over it?)

Thinking back to incidents in my childhood, I always have to question if I really remember something or if it’s merely a photo I’m recalling. Is it a coincidence that my most vivid memories are the ones documented in the family photo album? Or is all I’m truly remembering that piece of celluloid?

A boyfriend used to accuse me of never telling the same story the same way twice. We’d be in a group, and as couples are wont to do, I’d tell a story he’d heard before, but it was slightly altered. This used to annoy the boyfriend, and he thought I was purposely tweaking the story for effect. But, as I told him, I didn’t realize the story was coming out differently, and honestly believed in each of my tellings that what I said was the truth. Perhaps all the versions were true. Or maybe none of them. That’s the thing about memory: It’s unreliable.

Neil Armstrong walks on the moonI’m also affected by the stories I’ve been told. Some I’ve heard so many that the picture in my mind is vivid and sharp. My father loves to tell how he propped me up to watch the first moonwalk. I can so clearly picture our black-and-white TV with the wood frame, the curved chair we sat in, the ridiculous wide-collared shirt my dad wore. But here’s the thing: I was thirteen months old. I can’t remember what I ate for breakfast yesterday; no way is the moon landing an actual memory. But I can conjure up an image of it as if it were a real memory. (Side note: For decades my father said that my sister got the better deal, because he sat her up to watch Hank Aaron’s record-breaking home run, and obviously, plenty of people would walk on the moon again but no one would ever break Aaron’s record. Shows you what my dad knew!)

My diary from 1979I think one of the reasons I became a writer was to get down the facts of my life. I have many sparsely written diaries to record the mundaneness of my childhood/teen/adult years. But often reading them is like reading someone else’s life story. I know these are events that happened to me, but I don’t feel them any more. Dottie and Rose (from MODERN GIRLS) are much brighter in my mind than the characters in the pages of my Strawberry Shortcake locked diary.

Perhaps more than any other time, my film background comes to the forefront. Because rather than full episodes, I remember scenes, brief snippets of my life out of context: My best friend’s swimming pool and the way my fingers would turn to raisins after hours on end seeing how far we could swim holding our breaths. The ice cream man, Alberto, who let us buy our FunDips on credit. The ever-present South Florida construction sites I played on with my neighbor Kevin, searching for discarded nails and creating stories about the monsters who lived in the houses. Puncturing the tire of my frenemy Linda’s bicycle because she said I’d never have the nerve to do it, and then living in fear that I was going to have to pay for the ruined tire. John, the cutest boy in 3rd grade, seeing me for the first time with my headgear and telling me I looked like a horse. My father sitting on the edge of my bed after tucking me in, singing “Four Leaf Clover.”

For so long, I bemoaned my memory issues. I long to have a clearer picture of my own life. But I’ve come to realized that perhaps it’s my memory issues that have allowed me to become a writer. I don’t know what came before me. So I need to make it up. I picture scenes much like my recollections come to me—a single image or snippet of conversation—and I expand upon it until it’s a full story. I wish my memories were sharp. But until they are, I’ll just keeping telling stories to fill in the gaps.

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Jennifer S. Brown is the author of MODERN GIRLS (NAL/Penguin). The novel, set in 1935 in the Lower East Side of New York, is about a Russian-born Jewish mother and her American-born unmarried daughter. Each discovers that she is expecting, although the pregnancies are unplanned and unwanted, in this story about women’s roles, standards, and choices, set against the backdrop of the impending war. Learn more at www.jennifersbrown.com.

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This article has 7 Comments

  1. I imagine a lot of people start writing for this reason. When you’re telling people a story, they don’t want to hear “And then some other stuff happened that I don’t remember and then we were living in Cleveland and playing punk rock.”

    Or sometimes it’s for the purpose of REwriting their own lives — remember the end of Annie Hall where Woody Allen’s character has turned his relationship with Annie Hall into a play — a play which ends differently than the real story. This is more why I started — or at least why I started to get serious about it (there are two characters in my first novel based on the same woman I lived with for three months).

    Oh, well. Hemingway did some of that, too. 🙂

    1. I totally agree! It’s like the Seinfeld episode. “And then yadda yadda yadda, we were living in Cleveland.” It’s the “yadda yadda yadda” that’s so great!

      And I have definitely created characters based on people I know… but given them the kind of endings I thought they deserved, for better or for worse. 🙂

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