It took me 10 years to write my memoir The Burning Light of Two Stars, in part because I have a lousy memory. I coped with childhood trauma by dissociating, and it became a lifelong habit, so I don’t have access to huge swaths of my life, simply because I wasn’t fully there. My recollections have always been spotty.
On top of this, I had breast cancer 15 years ago. Chemotherapy saved my life but wiped out a lot of brain cells. And now I’m getting older and my family legacy—a grandmother declared “senile” and a mother who had dementia—doesn’t speak well for the staying power of my recall.
And then there’s the reality of memory itself. As Mary Karr put it so well, “Memoir is not an act of history but an act of memory, which is innately corrupt."
So, writing my first memoir was an uphill battle and a brand-new challenge. My first book, The Courage to Heal, and the five books that followed, were straight nonfiction, where I could rely on research, my own hard-fought knowledge, interviews, and other peoples’ stories for my material. To write memoir, I’d not only have to dig deeper and reveal more, but I’d also have to rely solely on what I could remember. I didn’t think I could do it. I almost gave up many times.
But the story of how I took care of my mother at the end of her life, even though she’d betrayed me at the worst time of mine, was a story that wouldn’t let me go. Millions of people face caregiving a parent who has betrayed them in the past. My gritty, roller-coaster story of mother-daughter estrangement and reconciliation had universal threads that I knew would resonate with readers.
So, I worked hard at reconstructing the past. I honed techniques for increasing what I could remember, building on the memories I did have, and developed strategies for working around holes where recall was impossible. I even began teaching a workshop, “How to Write About What You Can’t Remember.”
Eleven years after I first began jotting down bits of dialogue while sitting with my mother in endless doctor’s offices, I’m celebrating the release of my first book in 19 years. I’m thrilled to be publishing again, but there’s an occupational hazard unique to memoir writers that no one warned me about.
In committing my story to the page, I massaged each scene hundreds of times, tweaking it here, tightening it there. I emphasized some things and de-emphasized others, eliminated characters who were present in real life because they were unnecessary to the dramatic action. I truncated events or slowed them down to increase tension. I approximated dialogue because I certainly didn’t remember conversations word for word. In the end, The Burning Light of Two Stars isn’t a story I remembered; it’s a story I crafted.
Now, here’s the rub: Because of my deep immersion in the evolving story, the literary and the actual have merged, and when I try to recall the past now, I recall the scenes I wrote. Those literary representations of my mother-daughter story have become more substantial to me than the imperfect shards of memory I started off with.
I wonder what I’ve lost in this process.
And what about the thousands of moments I didn't include—the ones on the cutting room floor, the scenes I rejected because they were repetitive, the stories that weren’t dramatic enough, the ones that didn’t fit into my narrative arc? Those “rejected” memories will no longer be as vivid to me as the ones I refined and shaped and polished.
When people ask me about my mother now, I’m more likely to remember what I wrote rather than the imperfect, incomplete memories of her—and us—that I once carried. In giving readers a gripping and inspiring story, my original memories have been supplanted. I am glad The Burning Light of Two Stars is out in the world, but my relationship with my history will never be the same.