Memory is the way we keep telling ourselves our stories – and telling other people a somewhat different version of our stories.
For the creative writer, the question, when thinking about using memory, is how far we are willing to deviate from truth. Then again, what is truth?
One of my most shared personal anecdotes is a story that happened during my eighth summer. Out on the lawn, while playing rounders, there was an accident.
One of us ran forwards as another was raising their bat for a swing. I can see that moment in detail, I remember the blinding impact and the feel of blood dripping down my temple. I cried all the way to A & E, and those three stitches hurt.
Yet years later, when I mentioned this to my brother, he frowned. ‘No,’ he said. ‘It was you who hit me.’ We both lifted our fringes to reveal a scar on our foreheads.
The problem, so far as accuracy is concerned, is that both of us were accident prone. If I was using this episode for memoir, I could no doubt look up my medical records to check that I had made that visit.
For creative purposes though, this is a gift. Until that moment, the whole story was fixed. I could have developed it into something more imaginative, but would probably have found it tricky to deviate far from the key scenes.
Once that doubt had been embedded I began to explore the picture from the position of perpetrator, and the boundaries dropped away. ‘What ifs?’ came into play.
It wasn’t just that I might write a version of events in the voice of my cousin, mother, doctor or even become omniscient, this doubt had allowed me to step right outside the memory. I could take one moment from that day, change the time, the space, the setting, add or remove characters, and see where that took me.
It would mean going back to those two pieces of historical advice for writers:
- Write what you know
- Write what you don’t know
…and combining them. Which might just be what Alice Munro was saying in the first place.