Our memories function as though we have an internal, private documentary film about our entire lives—only it’s been formatted to the wrong video-software, and it scrambles across different files on several bad disks. We grab what scenes and sound bites we can, the ones that are still whole; wait to see what surfaces from the depths on its own; and then drag the river for the rest, piecing the fragments together.
When writing scene and dialogue from memory, you reconstruct as best as you can, and you give a nod or two to the flaws, the gaps in your recollection. Sometimes, there are records to help fill in these gaps, but even they may not be perfect sources of information. In “Girl, Interrupted,” her memoir of being institutionalized for two years in the late ’60s, Susanna Kaysen writes, “I was wrong,” about her recollection of her admittance. She remembered talking for 20 minutes with the doctor who committed her, though his admission note stated that he had interviewed her for over three hours. “Both of us can’t be right,” Kaysen reasons, initially conceding, allowing the reader to believe that she is the one who must have misremembered the events. After all, the doctor’s official report said he had taken three hours to determine her mental condition. However, the author then backs up her memory by introducing the times printed on her admittance documents, records which make it clear that while Kaysen’s doctor may have taken more than 20 minutes to diagnose her, it was impossible for him to have interviewed her for three hours. The reader has to entertain the possibility that Kaysen’s memory of the event is the one that is accurate. Whether or not she is perfectly accurate, her careful examination of the deviating accounts makes the reader wonder: What other mistakes might her doctors have made?
Similarly, the details and dialogue we forget from our own lives can tell us a great deal about when and where to dive into our memories and begin reconstructing events. Memoirist and poet Mary Karr, author of “The Liar’s Club” and “Cherry,” notes, “Sometimes to forget an event may be the most radiantly true way of representing it.” On occasion, it is the scenes from our lives where the details and dialogues are the fuzziest that we should question and attempt to piece together, even if our memories are not perfect. Karr reminds us to give credit to our audiences: “Readers understand, of course, that no one lives with a Handy-cam strapped to her head for research purposes.”
It surprises many new nonfiction writers that they have to do research or reconnaissance on their own experiences. But frequently, we do need to ask the other people involved, check documents, and visit and revisit our memories of events. We will probably not get it right the first time. We are constructing the movie script of our own existence from the cutting-room floor. We will have to go back several times and question our scenes to see if they accurately render the events, the people involved and their impact. The research we devote to looking for fragments within our own minds should be conducted with the same attention that we would devote to any other form of documented scenes. We should cull through the ashes a few times and, when possible, compare our memories with exterior sources. Remember, these exterior sources will render one version of the scene.
What we have witnessed is ours to render, and our responsibility lies in rendering as accurately as possible the truth of the scenes as we remember them. We have a responsibility to convey scenes from our own lives with stunning visual and visceral detail so that our readers may have access to an existence beyond their own.