Here is a question for our times: can memory represent truth when technology can reveal far more than we might remember? I answer that question differently based on what professional hat I am wearing. The attorney in me knows that a video or photograph is better evidence of an event than memory alone. As a writer, though, my memories feel holy to me—an amalgam of fact and feeling where vague recollection can, in itself, be the treasured memory.
I felt conflicted over this issue recently when an editor asked me to revise an essay I had submitted. The essay was a 4,000-word incarnation of my memoir, a book about how I quit lawyering after losing a terrorism trial, dove into a study of ethics at Harvard Divinity School, and then traveled with my father to his birthplace in India to learn about the life of poverty he had escaped. Among other places, we visited a street where my dad lived when he began college; in exchange for living space, my dad’s aunt required that he wash dishes and clothes, cook, and sleep on the floor of a windowless room.
How did your father look and feel when he was walking down that street? the editor wrote.
Forty years ago, a writer in my position might have conjured up a description using handwritten notes and memory. But as I sat down to revise, I plugged my LaCie hard drive into my laptop and clicked open a video clip of my dad walking down the street. I watched the clip again and again, noting his gestures, his facial movements, the quality of his gait, and every unique quiver in his voice. Being there with him, I had felt a thunderbolt of emotion. While I hadn’t noticed his sad smile and his restless fingers, the video camera did. Relying more on the video than on my memory, I revised the essay to capture exactly how my father walked through his past.
Will memory become a distant cousin of memorialization in modern creative nonfiction writing? What will “true” mean when we have so many technological tools to aid us in recreating settings and scenes? And what does reliving moments in granular detail do to us as writers?
I asked five memoirists to share stories with me about how they have used technology in their writing. Each story revealed how technology has helped writers “be there” in a way that was not possible in the past. Technology has become, in some ways, a creative partner to the writer. But these stories had cautionary elements, too: even as we are able to sharpen our recollections with punctilious precision, we are forced to reckon with how much remembering and reliving we actually want to do.
—Sejal H. Patel
John W. Evans
I use Google Maps to visit old places when I’m writing. The technology is so sophisticated now that I can basically walk around houses and apartment buildings, across cities, and even into remote natural places, in high resolutions and at eye level. I’m not always ready for the emotional impact of these meta-sojourns, but then, that’s often good for the writing, too.
When I was writing Young Widower, I traced a route to the place in Romania where my wife, Katie, died. I toggled along the path and back down the mountain, to the river we had crossed early in the afternoon. I remembered taking a group photograph there and begging our friend for a sip of water, which became a game, then a song. Just past the river was the place where Katie and I separated to hike by ourselves for a while. There were rocks on either side of the trail for at least two hundred yards. I looked backward and forward, left and right. As I toggled back up the mountain, I tried to imagine the place where we had briefly separated, where the bear found and attacked her. Of course, the Google Maps photos were all daytime shots: high-res, bright colors, no people. The passing of time was something I had to feel, which happened when I turned away from the picture and started taking notes again, re-reading my journal, and trying to remember in which direction I had turned the crank on the flashlight in order to make a light on the trail.
John W. Evans’s most recent memoir, Should I Still Wish, is forthcoming from the University of Nebraska Press. He teaches at Stanford.
WordReference.com is my go-to tech tool for writing memoir, in part because it’s crowdsourcing at its best. When I wrote A Cup of Water Under My Bed, I chronicled what my Cuban-Colombian family taught me about life, but I wrestled with what dichos, or Spanish “sayings,” meant in English. The user forums at WordReference.com helped me understand sayings that did not bear exact translations in English and that differed in meaning from country to country. For example, I went to the forum to find out if my literal translation of como uña y mugre as “like nail and dirt” was accurate. Users from Chile, Argentina, Galicia, Madrid, California, and Rhode Island had already weighed in: “as thick as thieves,” “two peas in a pod,” “to be hand and glove,” “joined at the hip.” And then there was como culo y calzón, which literally means “like ass and breeches.”
I can’t imagine having written the memoir without this online community devoted to translation. Not only did it expand my knowledge base, but it also helped me appreciate my own take on events. Canadians and Spaniards on the user forums suggest that being tostada means you’re “foggy in the head.” But when I told my father I was going to be a writer and he whistled and said, “Ahora si que está tostada,” I knew it was the Cuban way of saying I had gone crazy.
Daisy Hernández is the author of a 2014 memoir, A Cup of Water Under My Bed (Beacon Press). She teaches at Miami University.
Michael D. Jackson
The means of writing—whether quill, ballpoint, fountain pen, typewriter, or word processor—undoubtedly imbues what is written with authority or authenticity. Moreover, different technologies of communication lend quite different sensory qualities to what one writes.
My first nine books were hammered out on typewriters, though I generally composed poems in longhand. In retrospect, I marvel at the patience with which I revised each page with whiteout before retyping it in its entirety so that I would have three ostensibly finished pages to show for each hard day’s work. Naturally, I was reluctant to revise, though revise I did, whiting out, scribbling a spidery interlinear with a ballpoint pen, repaginating and retyping, often from the beginning, in a ceaseless compulsive-obsessional effort at perfection. When the first affordable Mitsubishi laptops became available in the late 1980s, I bought one without a second thought. It was too heavy and bulky to cram into a briefcase and required a digital printer, but the experience of writing on a word processor was both liberating and transformative. Writing became a form of sculpture, as easy to erase and rewrite as it was to move from one part of a text to another. This tactile rather than visual sense of writing was immensely pleasurable, though I quickly saw how ill-disciplined and prolix one could become if one did not take care to contain one’s enthusiasm.
Michael D. Jackson is the author of numerous books of poetry, fiction, memoir, and ethnography. He teaches at Harvard Divinity School.
The secret that I kept for more than twenty-five years started in Mr. Cooper’s seventh-grade U.S. history class. When Mr. Cooper turned off the lights to show filmstrips, Tony, the boy who sat next to me, and I held hands behind a barricade of textbooks. I dared not speak of this crush, not even to my best friend. I was white; Tony, African-American. Desegregation in the wake of Brown v. Board brought us together in the 1970s in Richmond, Virginia. No lesson addressed whether Tony and I should risk the ridicule and censure of openly breaking a taboo with a history far longer than our twelve years of age.
When I began working on White Girl: A Story of School Desegregation, I lived in Boston, too far away to casually visit the places I remembered. So I turned to my middle school’s website. A photo of the building’s Gothic letters above its stone exterior brought back the dread of stepping off the school bus into the dungeon-like cafeteria and halls. The site’s webmaster helped connect me with Mr. Cooper, who had recently retired. One drizzly afternoon in Richmond, I met my former teacher, a broad-shouldered African-American man who had once pushed us beyond the usual script of the Virginia textbook by making us all imagine ourselves as slaves as well as slave owners. Had he noticed the covert romance at the edge of his classroom so long ago? No, he said, but he wouldn’t have done anything to stop it if he had. Our conversation confirmed that we were both pioneers in the quest to change attitudes, even though my crush on Tony fizzled and I never did manage to find him again, even with the aid of the Internet.
Clara Silverstein’s memoir, White Girl: A Story of School Desegregation (University of Georgia Press), was released in paperback in 2013.
When I started writing The Slow Farm in the 1990s, my memories of my earliest years with my hippie parents on a small island in Canada felt precious and private, less like memoir and more like a fairytale. My occasional old-school research didn’t yield enough information to interrupt the sense that my memoir was a secret dream.
Then the Internet exploded. After finishing a draft of the book, I devoted nine months to research. I dove into geology, biology, and local history. I lost myself in the relics of the counterculture: music, photographs, film clips, timelines, excepts from books as far ranging as Mao’s Little Red Book and Summerhill: A Radical Approach to Child Rearing. I blinked awake from my Internet trance to discover that my story existed in a flow of cultural history. The research was intellectually stimulating—and essential to the final draft.
It also left me feeling fragmented and depleted—often lost in a maze of facts far from the story’s heart. In my obsessive clicking, I had sacrificed stillness and mental solitude, the meditative state I need to unearth emotional truths and find a story’s voice. To finish the book, I needed to extricate myself from the shared brain of the Internet and return to the integrity of my own memories. I needed to remember that while readers want memoirs to be accurate and include context, they come to our stories not for facts, but to meet the world through a distinct, discerning human consciousness.
Tarn Wilson is an essayist and author of a 2014 memoir, The Slow Farm (Ovenbird Books).