Hands up if you cannot remember what you had for lunch yesterday!
Right… me neither.
‘How in the world am I going to write a memoir then? Or an autobiography? Will the world have to live without knowing my deepest childhood traumas?’ I hear you ask.
If you are interested in writing a piece of life writing, but you feel like all you have is an old diary you drew some stars on at the age of 6 and a few scattered memories here and there, worry not! What I love about life writing is that it’s more than just telling someone’s story. It’s an exploration of how the brain works; of how relationships imprint habits and how those habits affect us throughout our life; of how the environment around us shapes us. It’s an exploration of life itself, a deconstruction of the self and a reconstruction, sometimes even a remodelling, of the past. And memory, of course, plays a huge role in this process. Therefore, I believe it is important to have an understanding of how memory works and, most importantly, to know a few techniques you might use in your work to portray such processes in writing. So, let’s dive right in!
Memory is unreliable. You know that crazy memory from when you were three? Are you sure that really happened? How about that memory of your first kiss? Isn’t it weird how you see yourself from the outside? How much of that memory is actually romanticised, as if you were watching a movie, inclusive of specific camera angles? In Freud’s words:
It is evident that such a picture cannot be an exact repetition of the impression that was originally received. For the subject was then in the middle of the situation and was attending not to himself but to the external world. Whenever in a memory the subject himself appears in this way as an object among other objects this contrast between the acting and the recollecting ego may be taken as evidence that the original impression has been worked over.
Rather than a file cabinet to store all your documents, then, memory is more like a piece of autobiographical fiction. Fictionalised life writing based on true events. And if our own recollections are partially made up, that means that even in life writing there is scope for creativity, uncertainty, and, well, making things up. However, that does not necessarily mean being inaccurate and untruthful. There is an important distinction to be made: accuracy of events vs. accuracy of character (here’s a link to a blog post I wrote on this topic for last year’s festival, if you are interested!). As we have already discussed, memory, although important, is unreliable — and as a writer, you are allowed to fill in the gaps however you see fit. You can recreate a scene which feels like it might have happened (something your character might have done as a child; something you wouldn’t be surprised to know actually happened), as long as you keep your character in mind. If you don’t, your audience will distrust you.
Below are some techniques you can employ to include fictional elements in your writing. Remember, accuracy of character can be just as important (if not more) as accuracy of events. What’s important is not that your reader believes that everything you are writing is 100% accurate, but that your reader never feels cheated or lied to. Massive difference!
1. Blatantly state the memory you are describing might be made up.
Depending on what style you are adopting throughout your work, you can do so either through your main character or through a narrator. By acknowledging that what you are describing might be made up, you bring a dimension of doubt to your work. This will create more interest and elevate your work by adding a level of complexity, making the piece feel more realistic and less textbook-y. Something like:
I remember walking hand in hand with her on the wet sand, our footprints disappearing behind us, swallowed by the ocean. I must have been around four. She looked at me lovingly and said ‘I’ve met someone’. Those exact words. Well, that is the recollection I have of that moment. I suppose it might have gone vastly differently.
2. Appreciate that although it’s unbelievable, your character clearly remembers that crazy thing that happened when they were two.
Sometimes people do honestly swear that they remember events that happened when they were very little, moment by moment. Do they? Maybe, who are we to say? However, if you want to avoid your reader thinking ‘I don’t believe you’ and losing trust in your character, you might want to make your character realise the craziness of them remembering such events. They can then swear that they do in fact remember, and go on to recount the memory — simply acknowledging the improbability will keep the reader with you. It will also create a very interesting dynamic in which the reader doubts the truthfulness of the event and your character is certain of their recollection — which might make your reader feel a little pressure to believe them. For example:
Although it sounds crazy, I am absolutely sure it was the three of us in that car. Me in the toddler car seat, my dad driving, and my brother in the front seat, throwing orange peels out of the window while singing “You Shook Me All Night Long” terribly out of tune.
3. Make your character doubt themselves.
Taking a diametrically different approach from the last point, you could make your character doubt themselves. If they do, your reader will question the accuracy of what they’re saying too. And that’s ok — remember, we don’t necessarily want the reader to believe the events you are narrating are 100% historically accurate, but rather that your character is truthful and human. We all doubt ourselves sometimes, and as we said before, we sometimes struggle to remember even the simplest things. So making your character doubt themselves too will make your reader connect to them on a human level, and your character will be more than words on a page. Try usinglots of “I think”, “I believe”, “I guess” and so on —anything that expresses uncertainty. For example:
I have this image in my head. I somehow know it’s my 1-year-old self, although how this piece of information is something I am certain of, I wouldn’t be able to say. It’s night-time, I am sleeping in my cot, only I am having a nightmare, and a massive snake is following me. I toss and turn in my tiny bed, so now my feet are on the pillow, now I elongate myself diagonally, now I crunch myself into a ball. But the snake is still following me. How did I even know snakes existed?
4. Make your character unreliable.
You can do so in a variety of ways — but unlike the above examples, I believe this is more effective if done throughout the piece, rather than one single sentence or period. Perhaps your character has done or said something that has been later discredited by another character or the narrator, if there is one. Perhaps they have a tendency to blow things out of proportion. Make it a character trait, a flaw — so that the reader is never sure whether they should believe them. Watch out, though! Make sure your character is still likeable, unless of course you don’t want them to be! You don’t want your reader to lose their faith or trust in your character, you simply want them to constantly question them. Think about it like that eccentric aunt of yours, who is such a dear and you love to bits. You would trust her to hold a pistol in front of you and not shoot, but you would question her if she told you the story of how she was abducted by aliens in the 70s.
So, what are you waiting for? Go fetch that diary you were writing at the age of six and go wild! Share your thoughts in the comments down below and do let us know how you get on if you end up using any of these techniques! Don’t be afraid of adding some uncertainty and some fantasy into your life writing. After all, what is memory if not a great piece of autobiographical fiction?
Freud, S. (1899). Screen memories. Standard Edition (Vol. 3, pp. 299-322). London: Hogarth Press.
About the Author:
Hi, I’m Chiara. I am an Italian writer, actress and singer based in London. I hold a Level 6 Diploma in Musical Theatre, a BA in Theatre and I’m currently in my second year of my MA Creative Writing and loving every moment of it! In my writing, I love to blend fiction and real-life stories, and take much of my inspiration from my own experiences and from the people I love. I am absolutely thrilled to be part of the Surrey New Writers Festival 2022 writing team!