Memory 

Few writers would disagree. Memory remains but in tatters and as writers these threads are used to weave whole cloth. Some writers like Frank McCourt allow the unimpeded memory of a child, narrated in present tense, to hold court in Angela’s Ashes a chronicle of his impoverished childhood in Limerick, Ireland. The much lauded memoir offers brief episodes over a great swath of time, so memory is not here the art of the pointillist, but of the landscape artist; these are broad strokes whose brilliance is in giving the child narrator freedom from adult interference. Others devised ancillary methods to enliven deadened memories, to bring clarity to a fuzzy recollection.

Mary Karr’s The Liar’s Club charts a different course to navigate between the fiction of pristine memory and the reality of fragmentation by enlisting the here and now, in particular sensory details. Thomas Larson writing in The Memoir and the Memoirist argues that Karr’s brilliance is the result of reenacting a memory by partaking of the experience – he uses Karr’s first sip of champagne – now to access the feeling again. “…[A]ccessing not the words that were there at her sip but the words about that sip that have accumulated in her life since,” Larson writes. While ostensibly serving the interests of sensory connection the method exposes Karr to calls of fabrication; the very veracity of the memory evoked so vividly is called into question – how could see possibly remember details from 1961, 1963, thirty years later? The Liar’s Club – unlike Angela’s Ashes – is not episodic and expansive, but limited and detailed. It’s the details that make the memoir soar or sink and Karr knows this and qualifies throughout the book her ability to get the details straight. McCourt never breaches the subject of authenticity; some have argued the truthfulness of Angela’s Ashes can be attributed in part to the story having been told many times as a stage play “enacted” ironically perhaps by Frank and his brother Malachy. While McCourt eliminated the adult interference, Karr introduced it to ensure the reader the wool wasn’t be pulled over their eyes. The conundrum memoirists and biographers face is whether to talk about the fiction of memory or to simply hold an implicit belief between reader and writer this ground has already been covered and is widely understood. Approaches differ widely.

Michael Ondaatje decided to forgo any discussion of the truthfulness of his memoir Running in The Family until he finished his story. “I must confess that the book is not a history but a portrait or gesture,” he writes. Ondaatje has his reasons. “No story is ever told just once. Whether a memory or funny hideous scandal, we will return to it an hour later and retell the story with additions and this time a few judgments thrown in. In this way history is organized,” he writes. This approach helps to create a beautifully flowing story that has at its heart a certainty required to speak, as Ondaatje does, in such poetic and eloquent narration. Fantastic episodes and exotic locales hidden from mainstream scrutiny already strain for believability; a professed doubt on the part of the narrator would only erode the memoir’s possibilities to speak to larger truths.

Larger truths for Virginia Woolf meant exposing the burden of the beast, which for her – while writing “Sketches of the Past” – transmogrified into a hydra, a divided first person accounting: “I now I then.” For Woolf, authors of personal writings should be honest with the readers and admit the tension. In this biographical piece Woolf writes how memories are indelibly impressed, but that some memories are far easier to retrieve than others. She terms one kind of memory “exceptional,” because these are memories possessing “being.” Another kind of memory – the common place – comprise a “non-being’” she writes. These non-being moments help to bolster and highlight in contrast to the moments of being. Woolf suggests (qtd. in Larson) that given time the ideal way she found to pen her biographical works would be to expose the contrast of the present, intense with being, with a part of the past equally intense and “make dueling exceptionalities work on each other.” The duel should be manifested in the writing.

Contemporary scholars and writers agree. Take Gunter Grass and Thomas Larson. Both suggest nothing is hidden (which is slightly ironically for Grass given his latest memoir reveals a dark secret from his past) from the reader. Grass pointedly suggests memory is recalcitrant and persnickety. “Memory like to play hide-and-seek, to crawl away,” Grass writes in Peeling The Onion. “Memory contradicts itself…it will have its way,” he argues. Instead of giving up, Grass advocates taking on the often unreasonable tenor of our memories. Success is possible. “When pestered with questions, memory is like an onion that wishes to be peeled…” Larson is of the same mind. He says memoirist should embrace the ambiguities and dangers of remembrance, but remain cautious. “Don’t worry about remembering events: they have already shaped themselves in your mind and emotion, though you should be on guard for how you reshape them as you write today.” It is this relationship that is grist for the memoir, the relationship of the “I now I then,” of present and past. “…Whatever we’ve witnessed, we’ve also participated in. And the act of writing memoir allows us to continue participating in what we’ve witnessed. Writing memoir means that we combine what happened with how the exploration of what happened continues to affect us.” Poet and literary critic T.S. Eliot might put it this way: “What we call the beginning is often the end/And to make an end is to make a beginning” Be both witness and participant.

“The best way… is to admit to the tension – not to cover it up,” Larson writes, and in this way the most important element becomes not much the memory, for it will undoubtedly be approximate, is to highlight the perception of the rememberer.

The rememberer must be composed. It bears the burden of veracity.

Memory is vital to forming a person’s identity and providing the stable sense of reality we need to function in daily life. Despite memory’s fundamental importance, its basis in the brain remains largely mysterious.

Source: Memory | Science | AAAS