Overview

What is memory? Etymologically speaking, the word memory means “mindful remembrance.” I appreciate that. It is the commemoration of something or someone. The mental capacity to retain unconscious traces of conscious impressions and of recalling these things to consciousness in relation to the past. It is the evidence (hypothetical perhaps) but the evidence that something happened…that someone existed. Memory is the holding place. It is where and how nouns (people, places and things) get to still have power long after the moment or the person is gone.

Are memories always complete? Nooooo. But their incomplete state is fodder for the writing. The gaps can become the muse. The empty spaces can be sought after (through research and investigation) or reimagined which would pull the writer more toward creative nonfiction.

Does it matter if we get all the facts “right”?  From my perspective, and it is this perspective which governs this particular course, you do not have to have all of the details right. You remember what you remember and that can tell a reader a lot about you but more importantly it can tell you a lot about you. I remember my grandmother’s little brother Uncle Mike as a charismatic, fun-loving, slick mouthed handsome man who always wore a leather jacket and snazzy glasses and had a widow’s peak and a sardonic grin painted on his face. He was very charming. Very attractive. All the housewives on my block found reasons to make unannounced visits when Uncle Mike was over and he seemed to know it and expect it and revel in it. My grandfather, however, before he passed, described Uncle Mike as a hustler and a lazy man with low character who was always borrowing money and exploiting my grandmother’s unceasing affection. Which one of us is right? Well, we both are. I held my uncle how I held him when I was a little girl. I didn’t know he was borrowing money all the time. He always gave me money. It pulled it right out of my ears the way only the best uncles do. I didn’t know the perception was that he was exploiting my grandmother. In my memory they always looked like they were each other’s favorite person. But I was 8. So my vantage point was admittedly limited. Doesn’t matter though. I still hold him the way I always have. My grandfather’s experience of and description of Uncle Mike is his. I don’t have to adjust my settings. My grandfather’s recollection does help to fill in some things for me. But I am under no obligation to re-language my uncle in my memory. I am under no obligation to remember him differently either. Again, my biases reveal me. And if you are writing from memory, that is, in my view, one of the goals. To reveal yourself.

Are some memories more important or significant than others? You tell me. You alone have the answer. I know that for me, there are experiences that weigh more in my mind; they cost me more or shifted my consciousness or my quality of life in some way but remembering the mundane is a gift. Especially for the writer. Besides, the mundane, once held up to the light, often offers as much depth as the stuff we know how to value more. Anthony Bourdain did that masterfully in my mind. He could describe the complexities of a culture through the vivid descriptions of the food they made and the process it took, and the feelings evoked. I heard the poetry in food and music and language and shared his take and it was, for me, a gift to listen to him distill his experiences with beautifully curated mindful language the way he did. Good writers are available to the dull stuff.

Now then. A note on creative nonfiction. If this is a genre you are attracted to, you will need to examine the importance of research as a basis for fiction. Some fiction is deeply indebted to the historical record, while other works suggest careful research in a specialist field. Even works of fiction that seem to deal with matters readily available to anyone who lives life with an awareness of his/her surroundings may, at certain points, require research on the part of the author. We shall be examining the pleasures – and pitfalls – of research-based writing and asking ourselves whether the success of a story depends on its fidelity to the research that underpins it. (If it isn’t clear yet, I drive myself nuts with these questions.)

Angela Davis said we should all write more than one autobiography. It makes sense, doesn’t it? Life requires experience and reflection. Which one is flesh and which is bone? Without experience we have nothing to reflect upon. Without reflection, experience is merely a series of events we either participate in or witness before we die.

Human beings are lucky(?) in that we have the cognition and language and therefore the opportunity to explore the events that make up our lived experiences in order to interpret, reflect and record what we make of those experiences. Let’s work through this together. I am thinking of a color. This color is the sound of my mother’s sadness. When I was 8 years old, I watched the color gray swallow my mother whole. (From here I can tell you about the day we buried my stepfather. I can tell you from the point of view of the pastor at the church looking out into the congregation seeing my grandmother’s pinched face. I can tell you about it beginning with Stevie Wonder’s song “Ribbon in the Sky” and how that song played on a loop the day my stepfather was buried. Or I could begin in the playroom in the basement of my stepfather’s house with peeling gray wallpaper and how that same gray almost swallowed my mother the day we buried the meanest man I had ever known. My point is the story is and isn’t the same. The approach sets the story, in my view. And the approach is about how the author wants us to see it. It is a heavily agenda(d) thing.

Let’s try another example. The island of Cyprus is divided by a buffer zone in the capital city of Nicosia. The north side of the island is inhabited by Turkish-speaking Cypriots. The south side of the island is inhabited by Greek-speaking Cypriots. There was a war between the two sides in 1974, the year I was born. It is a segregated island. The story of what happened on that fateful day in 1974 prompting a war, changes depending on who you ask. They remember it the way they need to, not necessarily the way it was. Those of us not intimately connected to that history can see the selective memory, the cherry-picking both sides are doing. But those who are tied to that history have a very hard time with objectivity. Their memories tend to favor their perspective. Not the accuracy of the moment. Maybe I’m saying, you are invited to be inaccurate. But let’s put a finer point on that…