What to Do When You're a Memoirist and Memory Fails

For writers—particularly those who write memoirs—memory can be the medium and ultimately also the message when a story, event or feeling emerges from the darkness into the light of conscious knowing. But what happens when a memoirist can't remember?
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By Natalie Singer

The memories that glimmer strongest in my mind, that pop up repeatedly as though they have an agency of their own, act like cosmic bulges―moments that wink like the star-studded center of a spiral galaxy, like Roland Barthes’s photographic punctum. These bulges frustrate me as a clumsy human with a hard-to-control yo-yo brain but seduce me as a writer. I want to capture them because I know they're where the stories are.

Autobiographical and emotional memories are powerful and can be very generative for us as writers. Virginia Woolf called the feeling of returning to a memory of early childhood, in which she experienced the sound and wind and light of a moment in her nursery, “the purest ecstasy I can conceive.” Even in the case of a negative or painful memory that shocks, Woolf wrote, “the shock-receiving capacity is what makes me a writer. It is only by putting it into words that I make it whole.”

[Online Course: Memoir 101with Gloria Kempton]

For writers, memory can be the medium and ultimately also the message when a story, event or feeling emerges from the darkness into the light of conscious knowing.

But what happens when you can't remember?

Sometimes the memories we want to access most, those that make up the gray space we need to fill in, are elusive. Looking to fill in my own blanks, I sometimes reach for those groups of neurons where memory is stored but come up empty, as though my memories have been disappeared like witnesses to a mob crime.

While working on my book California Calling, A Self-Interrogation, which is a coming-of-age memoir, this elusiveness of recollection plagued me.

There are reasons some memories shine brighter than others—traumatic memories, for instance, often stand out; key experiences during window of time between ages 12 and 22, when our brains are rapidly developing and emotions are heightened, seem to imprint upon us in a way we remember like it was yesterday, for decades and decades.

Yet so much is forgotten—stuck in our minds but not easily accessible. Researchers in Canada have found that children can remember events even before age 2 but those memories are fragile and typically disappear by age 10. Many of us have had the experience of wondering why we remember a handful of the really good and really bad things, but the events, conversations and feelings of our quotidian lives seem to fade away.

Scientists are evolving the study of memory—soon we might be able to preserve our memories more easily, access them more accurately, and even manipulate or erase them, possibilities that hold much promise for the person with dementia or PTSD and, maybe, for the artist.

Until then, what to do?

While researching and writing my memoir, I used several techniques to jog memories to the surface and deal with the problem of not recalling. Here are five of those strategies.

Watch for sensory cues.

Sensory cues are particularly powerful: In his book In Search of Lost Time / A La Recherche Due Temps Perdue Marcel Proust was able to reconstruct a whole picture of his childhood by taking a bite of a madeleine.

The most magical, promising and terrifying memories for me are those that come, involuntarily, from sensory cues.

One came upon me recently, while I walked home from a friend’s through the dark, quiet streets of my neighborhood. My family was far up ahead, and I went forth slowly, noticing the way the poppies looked in the shadows and watching for cracks in the sidewalk. Suddenly I looked up to see a tree—trunk, branches, leaves, illuminated white by the moon floating behind it in the black sky. Immediately my mind flipped, like a channel changing, to a nighttime fair in the dark of a Florida winter evening, a 30-foot tree that had been decorated for the holidays, the first Christmas tree I had ever seen glowing bright, the scent of the ocean and of cotton candy for sale, the heavy damp weather, the prickly fear of the KKK that marched regularly through our streets. This became a scene in my book.

It's hard to plan ahead for sensory cues—they tend to arrive unexpectedly as a taste or smell or sight. But we can be ready for them by recognizing their value to our writing and take notes when they happen to capture the memories they reveal before they fade away again.

Turn on the music.

Music is powerful conjurer, a subset of sensory cues that stimulates the brain’s pleasure centers and triggers memory. No memento, no psychic trick can better summon a complete sensorial, emotional recall of my childhood (what the great memory scientist Endel Tulving called autonoetic consciousness) than the music my parents played when I was 1, 2, 3 years old. The Bee Gees. Donna Summer. The Jackson Five: Just thinking of some of those lyrics, I’m already gone, as The Eagles would say.

One way that I spur these memories along is to look up the top 50 or 100 songs from the year or years I am writing about. Scanning the list, then listening to whatever songs jump out at me, has conjured many memories that had previously been obscured.

Plumb artifacts and personal accounts.

Returning to journals, letters and pictures is another way to bring experiences from the past to the present. To exhume a romantic relationship—my first love—I unearthed a stack of letters my teenaged boyfriend had handwritten to me after I moved away to another country. I didn't have my replies to him, but his letters opened enough of a crack into the past to remind me of some experiences and feelings that had long since slipped away.

In her searing memoir of girlhood and sexuality, Love and Trouble, Claire Dederer relies on a collection of old journals to transport her current-day narrator, angsty with mid-life questions and rekindled desire, into the past. The exploration of the journals, which she sometimes excerpts in the book, and her conflicted feelings about their meaning, serve as a scaffold for the story.

In Ongoingness: The End of a Diary, author Sarah Manguso uses her 25-years-long journal to fuel an interrogation into what it means to live as time keeps moving ever forward. Manguso never quotes her diary, allowing it to become an invisible force behind her memoir, mysterious but all-powerful.

These types of artifacts can both prod our thinking and become part of the story themselves.

 Writing Your Legacy, by Richard Campbell & Dr. Cheryl Svensson

Writing Your Legacy, by Richard Campbell & Dr. Cheryl Svensson

Employ historical and geographical research.

To reanimate events from my past, I've also turned to research. I knew that during a summer internship at a newspaper in the California Sierras I was transformed in some hard-to-pinpoint way, but I had a difficult time remembering specific events from that summer in my life. I had written news stories while there, published in the afternoon print newspaper of a sleepy, isolated town, but they had never been put online so I had no record of them.

I recalled, however, that a series of tragic crimes had occurred at the same time I was living in the town. By reading numerous media reports of the serial murders that I could find online, as well as researching the geologic and geographic history of the region, I was able to conjure not only a clearer picture of the place I spent time in—its feel, its cultural and political concerns, its seeming impenetrability—but also of the interiority of my experiences.

Embrace forgetting.

We think of memories as facts, or files, to access, but memory often lives partly the dimension of imagination—the middle ground between light and shadow, to make a Twilight Zone analogy. As writers, we can embrace this middle ground and put it to work for us when we cannot remember all the details we would like. I'm not talking about lying, which isn't the realm of creative nonfiction. I'm talking about working with unknowability.

A technique when you cannot recall something is to simply acknowledge that. In my memoir, which relies on a scaffold of questions in which the reader is introduced to an interrogative voice seemingly separate from the narrator, I occasionally own up to not remembering. I utilize the experience of finding the mind blank of specific details to investigate the reliability of ethnographic story and to poke at the accuracy of personal myths. I lean on the lack of recall to bring to life, if not the actual events that elude me, then the feeling of being left wanting to remember. In one place, I write:

Later I will try to recall the names of all the places I went in California, the spaces I passed through and passed through me, their location, their feel, like a gouge in the granite of some northern mountain. But I remember few details, so much feeling and so few facts. Gouge, the word, is so close to gauge, as in measure, as in witness, as in all the minutes and hours and days spent silently gauging my own level of comfort, or discomfort. My belonging. Gauging the likelihood of my voice catching in my throat.

As writers, we can entertain the question: can our state of amnesia become a part of the story itself in some way?

And we can acknowledge that not remembering is also alright. It is a known fact that ignorance moves us. It feeds our souls. John Keats termed the willingness to embrace the unknown and accept mystery “negative capability” and believed it was essential for creativity.

If we no longer needed to seek answers, if we knew everything, what would motivate us? Is it the collection of answers—of autobiographical memories that, perhaps, one day very soon through science and technology, will be made as available as any Internet fact—that will bring us meaning? Or is it the search itself, that plumbing of the unknown, memory scrap by memory scrap, that fuels our imaginations?

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Natalie Singer is the author of the memoir California Calling: A Self-Interrogation(Hawthorne Books, March 2018). Her writing has been published or is forthcoming in journals, magazines, and newspapers including Proximity, Lit Hub, Hypertext, Literary Mama, The Washington Post, The Seattle Times, ParentMap, Alligator Juniper, Brain, Child, Largehearted Boy, Full Grown People and the 2015 anthology Love and ProfanityNatalie has been the recipient of several awards, including the Pacific Northwest Writers Association nonfiction prize and the Alligator Juniper nonfiction prize. California Calling was first runner up for the Red Hen Press nonfiction prize and a finalist for the Autumn House Press nonfiction prize. Natalie has taught writing inside Washington State’s psychiatric facility for youth and Seattle’s juvenile detention center, and she has worked as a journalist at newspapers around the West. She is a 2017-2018 writer-in-residence at On the Boards, a contemporary performing arts collective in Seattle, where her writing responds to the season’s works and creates a conversation with the community. Natalie earned her MFA in Creative Writing and Poetics from the University of Washington. Originally from Montreal, she lives in Seattle. (@Natalie_Writes; @NatalieSingerAuthor)

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