The Art of Remembering
Strange, prickly times these are, in which to be publishing a memoir. “So how did you remember everything… all those details?” I’ve been asked meaningfully and on numerous occasions. Some are more direct: “In the light of the recent…”
It’s happened enough now that I no longer even feel indignant defensiveness of my own work. But each time it does strike me as an immense pity that a few scandals have so shaken faith in a genre – one in which the vast majority, at least, of stories are surely recounted sincerely and to the best of the narrator’s memory.
Herein too lies the intriguing irony of this new shadow of doubt and uncertainty. For, those unfortunate instances of falsified stories notwithstanding, the great scope for a divergence from “reality” in penned recollections lies disproportionally not in the hard facts, but in the (uncontroversial yet infinitely subjective) perspective of the memoirist.
So in my answers, having dealt with the generally assumed and accepted point that most dialogue is necessarily reconstructed, I’ll explain the process of gathering and testing the memories: I interviewed my family and many friends, and then later sent out the draft manuscript widely; for comment, dispute of any dialogue thought unreasonable, and general fact checking. At least for me, this – resolving the “facts” – was the easy part.
In book of more than four hundred pages, the single vehement objection from my father epitomises the treacherous and interesting territory of the much harder part. As he readily admits, he had a fraught relationship with his deeply eccentric, sometimes delightful, and profoundly difficult father. Nor will he dispute the fact that he and his father, living in two lonely houses opposite each other in the middle of the bush, did not speak to each other for more than year. Explaining this bizarre situation, I’d written that father and son had stopped speaking to each other. “That’s not how it happened,” protested my father, “He stopped talking to me.”
My mother, for her part, felt strongly about several sections in which I recount conversations involving her controversial decision to home school my brother, sister and I. Here, it was not what I referred to – my memories of her saying things like school stifles intellectual curiosity, constrains creativity et cetera – but of the contextual, qualifying details that I, as an eight year old, simply did not remember. “Robbie,” she’d say, “I may have said that, but I also would have said [vast complex paragraph of proposed dialogue]… and I might have said that then, but I didn’t always say it like that…”
It was also my mother who came up with one of the most insightful observations I’ve heard on this subject. At the time she was staying with me in London, and had spent many stressful hours helping me do a last minute fact check before I submitted the final manuscript. A natural pedant, the lengths she went to were great, sometimes to the point of absurdity – most memorably involving her reconstruction (with a wooden ruler, a drawing pin and a rubber band) of a catapult I’d described; to check if it really would fire accurately.
“It’s interesting,” she mused, “how one often remembers most the times a person acts out of character, how you don’t expect them to act.”
The same, I suppose, could be said for everything – we remember vividly and acutely not the usual. Nor do we remember predictably or statically; over time these haphazardly selected and catalogued memories take on subtly different meanings, wax or wane in significance, and shape the lens through which we both see and recall the world. Such is – and so is perhaps too often forgotten – both the limitation and attraction of the memoir; the chance to inhabit one person’s inherently flawed but richly human truth.
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