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Challenging the Limits of Memory

In this excerpt from Writing Life Stories, Bill Roorbach teaches you how to pay attention to and translate your memories and how to overcome your resistance to remembered places and events.

One of the many curious things about the act of writing is the way it can give access to the unconscious mind. And in the hidden parts of consciousness lie not only hobgoblins and neurotic glimmers, but lots of regular stuff, the everyday stuff of memory. The invisible face of your grade-school bully is in there, somewhere, and the exact smell of the flowers on vines in your grandma’s backyard, along with most everything else, perhaps including borrowed memories, even false ones. Some memories are going to be painful, but some pleasurable, too. An awful lot is just informational, the stuff of lost days.

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And—I’m just realizing this—memory is what people are made of. After skin and bone, I mean. And if memory is what people are made of, then people are made of loss. No wonder we value our possessions so much. And no wonder we crave firm answers, formulae, facts, and figures. All are attempts (however feeble in the end) to preserve what’s gone. The present is all that’s genuinely available to anyone, and the present is fleeting, always turning instantly to the past. Even facts distort: What’s remembered, recorded, is never the event itself, no matter how precise the measurement—a baseball score is not the game. Memoir is never a re-creation—that’s impossible. At best, what we can do is listen to memory and watch memory (the other senses are involved, as well—who hasn’t been transported back by a taste, a fragrance, a touch?) and translate memory for those we want to reach, our readers.


If you’ve written fiction at all, you know that detail is required to make a vivid scene. What’s in the room? What sort of day is it? Who exactly is in the scene, and what exactly do they look like? All well and good writing fiction: you make it up. But writing nonfiction, the challenge is different: how to remember. For, of course, if we’re going to call it a true story, the details better be true, right? Then again, we all know memory is faulty. Don’t forget Tobias Wolff who says: “[M]emory has its own story to tell.”

My sister, Carol, likes to tell the story of the time our younger brother, Doug, sucked on a hollow toy bolt till it suctioned onto his lips. He was maybe four. She and Mom and Doug were at Roton Point, our run-down beach club in Connecticut, at the end of the day, marching to the car carrying blankets and towels and pails and toys. Doug was a stocky little kid (we sibs meanly called him The Bullet till he shot up into a slim young man), and he looked cute as hell stumbling along carrying the Scotch cooler with this big blue bolt suctioned onto his lips. In the car he still wore it, all the way to the guard booth, where he liked to say good-bye to the genial old guard who watched the beach gate. Carol tells the story at Thanksgiving and Christmas about every year. And I believe she told it at Doug’s wedding rehearsal dinner. Anyway, at the gate, The Bullet tried to pull the bolt off to say hi to the guard, but he’d sucked on it so long and so hard it wouldn’t come unstuck. Carol grabbed hold of the threaded end of the thing, wrestled with it a little, till (pop) it came loose.

Carol looked at Doug and Doug looked at Carol and then she said, “Oh, my God!” and so Mom turned and said it, too: “Oh, my God!” Doug’s lips—poor Doug!—were ballooned up like some character’s in a cartoon, so big even he could see them. Doug freaked! Carol freaked! Mom freaked! Doug cried and cried, even though it didn’t hurt, but before they could even get near the doctor’s, the swelling had disappeared.

That’s it. Cute little family story. But the trouble is, Carol wasn’t there. I was there. And the bolt wasn’t blue; it was yellow. And that guard was a nasty old guy. I can still see him, all crabbed in his cheap uniform. And Mom didn’t freak; she laughed. She laughed despite herself, because poor little Doug looked so comical, and because—this is important—she knew he’d be all right. And I laughed and laughed, “Bwaa-ha-ha!” because I was a big brother, and big brothers laughed at the misfortunes of younger brothers, at least they did in 1963.

I let Carol tell the story at meals, only occasionally challenging her, and now that’s part of the family story, how we both claim the memory. I know she’s wrong. She knows I’m wrong. Whom do you believe? Does it matter? Maybe we’re both wrong. Doug can’t remember. Mom has died. Is something more important than swollen lips at stake here?

Memory is faulty. That’s one of the tenets of memoir. And the reader comes to memoir understanding that memory is faulty, that the writer is going to challenge the limits of memory, which is quite different from lying. One needn’t apologize. The reader also comes expecting that the writer is operating in good faith, that is, doing her best to get the facts right.

Listen to Darrel Mansell, a teacher of writing, in his article on nonfiction in the Association of Writers & Writing Programs’ journal The Writer’s Chronicle:

You just can’t tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth about that amorphous blob primary substance—language, with its severely limited and totally unrealistic rules and regulations, won’t permit it. Furthermore the aesthetic and rhetorical demands of writing won’t quite permit it either. The best you can do is to be scrupulous about facts and conscientious about what you and only you know to be the essential truth of your subject. That way you have a shot at telling one modest aspect of what really happened—something true, up to a point.

EXERCISE: Mapmaking

Please make a map of the earliest neighborhood you can remember living in. Include as much detail as you can. Who lived where? What were the secret places? Where were your friends? Where did the weird people live? Where were the friends of your brothers and sisters? Where were the off-limits places? Where did good things happen? Where did you get in trouble?


Go on, you, go make your map. Notice the ways (if any) you resist—get away from that refrigerator!—but make your map, no matter how simple. (One young guy made an X with a pencil and wouldn’t go further, at least not until he saw the maps of others.) Or no matter how complex. (Another student, over fifty, reverted completely to childhood, went to work on a huge sheet of poster board with colored markers and tempera paint, magazine cutouts, bits of cloth to represent lawns, complete lists of house occupants, dioramas of two school yards, three churches, and her grandparents’ house. She spent so much time that she came to our workshop all exhausted and without any writing to show.)

However you approach your map, enjoy yourself. Then come back and read on. See you in fifteen minutes, an hour, a week. But do make that map, or drawing, or $35,000 fiberglass scale-model relief, complete with working grain elevator and talking puppets.

Excerpted from Writing Life StoriesTenth Anniversary Edition (Writer’s Digest Books, 2008).

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