Writing Memory: Did It Really Happen or Am I Making It Up?

I’ve started a new writing project, one based on a journey I took many years ago. It was a long journey: seven months, and a challenging one. I’d sold pretty much everything of value I owned—business, home, car—bought an around-the-world airline ticket and set off with little more than one suitcase and a  handful of plans. I still have the journals I kept of my travels, as well as packets of letters I received at various locations, a few photographs. But I’ve decided not to reread the journals as I’m writing, but to just let the memories and the images appear in daily writing sessions.

For example, one writing session I’m in a gypsy wagon at a Sensory Circus in a park at the green edge of Salzburg. I’m drinking tea and eating sweet bread with Marta. That may not really be her name, but that’s the name memory handed me. As I said, I’m all about trusting memory, knowing, as I do, what a trickster it is, taking images from an event and superimposing them on another and then sliding that one from underneath and stacking it on another—an Alice in Wonderland game of solitaire, all expansion and compression, juxtaposition and fantasy.

Une roulotte dans un parc
Sometimes it’s frustrating. I’m rolling along with a memory, when suddenly I can’t remember the name of a place I visited, or the week or month I was there. I can’t recall names of people I spent time with. So I leave a blank, or allow memory to make them up, as it did with Marta. I write a “Note to Self,” to look it up later and keep writing, willing myself to stay in the chair and not get up to “cheat” by riffling through the journals for the details. I know that once I allow the need for research to interfere with the flow of pen and memory, the story will be lost to the facts.

Sometimes letting memory take the lead is exhilarating. One morning I riffed for three pages on buying books at second-hand bookstores. (This was long before Kindles or i-anythings.) Those three pages won’t all make it from notebook to computer when the time comes to transfer them, but I discovered something new about myself, something that I wouldn’t have discovered if I didn’t just keep the pen moving. Another session, writing about a train ride between Salzburg and Budapest, I lost myself in memories of Sunday road trips in the backseat of our family Nash, Daddy teaching me nonsense songs and us singing together.

Memory is a forward/backward thing. A shape-shifting time-traveler made up of images and associations. I understand the moment an event or experience or an image is observed and clicked into place in memory, it is already fiction. It has taken a different form in that moment and it will take a different form again when I retrieve it, or when, as if by the striking of some sensory gong, it surfaces unbidden as did the three pages on used books. But I’ve decided, for so long as I want to continue to explore the effects and aftermath of that long-ago journey, I’m going to let memory have its way with me.

What’s your experience writing from memory?

15 thoughts on “Writing Memory: Did It Really Happen or Am I Making It Up?

  1. It was so exciting to read this! I am presently engaged in writing a novel, and I’ve been so amazed at how my memories can guide me along the way. Of course they don’t make the story, but they do allow for some interesting events to happen, for the importance of environment and character development to become abundantly clear, and provide a take-off point for the imagination.

    My history of traveling is similar to yours, Maybe it does in fact broaden the mind?
    Anyway, I’m finding it fun and powerful to work in a happy confusion of layering memories in places they can be used. First time I’ve visited your site. I found it after buying your book!

    • Hi Vicki,
      Thanks for your comments about how memory is helping you along the way. I swear, the more I write the piece I’m currently writing, the more fascinated I am with the memory process. It’s almost like I’m writing memory, but also observing how memory is “showing” me what to write, and where it wants to go next.
      I love your description of “happy confusion” as the place memories take us. It feels that way to me, too.
      Thanks for buying my book; I’m glad you stopped by for a visit. Keep me posted on how the novel/memories come along.

  2. AUnt Judy,
    This is wonderful, I can’t wait to read more. It’s funny how our memory remembers. My memory seems to remember my journeys, adventures or what have you in such a positive, wonderful way. Even the small things, like the rain across my body, the steepest hill I had ever climbed.
    Thank you, I may just have to do something like this. Keep on Judy, keep on.

    • Hi Cathy, thanks for stopping by. I love that you’re memories of all your journeys and adventures bring you joy. Yes, please do write your memories. Tell those stories. And keep traveling and adventuring! xoox

  3. Great post Judy. Funny that even amongst my sisters and I we each have individual memories of shared events. And usually one of us will ask, “Where was I? I don’t remember that happening.” When of course they were there. So even shared events can be questioned as imagined. I would love to hear more about your tea with Marta the gypsy, it sounds lovely.

    • Thank you for commenting, Mary. My sisters and I have had this same experience. One of my sisters is also a genealogist and has the “facts” of some of our stories; she’s corrected my memory more than once. I love to hear all the differing perspectives, too. And yes, the tea with Marta, in the gypsy wagon. I wonder how much of it is “true.”

  4. I think your experiment is a grand one and I’m interested to hear how it goes over time. I think memory is a fascinating thing and I think we don’t understand much about it especially when you factor in age and emotion and mental state. It seems that every time we recall a memory we change it inadvertently. It always makes me wonder about truce and memory and time. That in and of itself is fascinating to me. Thank you for your post.

    • Thanks for your thoughts, Leslie. I agree. Memory is fascinating and the more I write of these memories of my journey, the more backward/forward places I go. This morning, for example, writing about a woman I met in Budapest who invited me for dinner and served porkchops. My memory went back to my mother’s favorite way of serving porkchops and remembering how delicious. Guess what I took out of the freezer to cook for my own dinner tonight. (And they won’t be nearly as good as either Kati’s in Budapest, or my mother’s in St. Jo, MO) Since we’re both writing memory, let’s keep comparing notes.

  5. Sometimes my memory images are very clear and other times they’re fuzzy. Like you, I try to keep writing and not worry about what is truth and what is fiction. Just get the words on the page.

  6. It will be interesting to see how closely aligned your memories are with your journals when you do go back to read them.

    Unfortunately, the journals I kept are not of the time I would most like to write about, but I find that memory begets memory and often keeps me traveling along a path of retrieving events from the past. And of course writing, as opposed to typing, will trigger different things again.

    • Thanks for your comment Deborah. What you wrote about writing, as opposed to typing, triggering different things. What is surprising to me, as I write, is the associations that my memory makes. That in itself is a kind of memory mojo. Things I would never “think” of if I were trying to create the story in a more cognitive manner. I’m trusting, and really enjoying the ride so far.

  7. I deal with issue all the time, as you know. The Desert Years are about 65 years away, so the issue is there–all the time, But I have a simple response to: which has priority, the story or the sketchy truth.?
    Of course, the story has priority for me but there are even more compelling reasons.
    My memory is faulty.
    I am now in email dialogue with my past friends, Rob (Valve Oil Vodka) for one. When he spontaneously recalls those times, the very same times, he remembers a different set of facts, in even greater detail than my sketchy version. His memory is better. I’m not even close. Yet, it’s hard for him to write a story. And when he reads my story characterizing him, he shares it with his adult daughter. More than once, she claims that the story defines her father clearly.
    “No question, Dad, that’s you.”
    So I’m not concerned that I give story priority over fact. My memory may be faulty or incomplete, but it tells the “truth” about my friends. For me, that’s the bottom line.
    Thx for the question

    • Thanks, Don. I know some of your stories and how “real” they are, whether or not they’re the real “facts.” I appreciate how you trust your “faulty” memory.

  8. I deal with issue all the time, as you know. The Desert Years are about 65 years away, so the issue is there–all the time, But I have a simple response: which has priority, the story of the sketchy truth.
    ?
    Of course, the story has priority for me but there are even more compelling reasons.
    My memory is faulty.
    I am now in email dialogue with my past friends, Rob (Valve Oil Vodka) for one. When he spontaneously recalls those times, the very same times, he remembers a different set of facts, in even greater detail than my sketch version. His memory is better. I’m not even close. Yet, it’s hard for him to write a story. And when he reads my story characterizing him, he shares it with his adult daughter. More than once, she claims that the story defines her father clearly.
    “No question, Dad, that’s you.”
    So I’m not concerned that I give story priority over fact. My memory may be faulty or incomplete, but it tells the “truth” about my friends. For me, that’s the bottom line.
    Thx for the question

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