by Carole Duff
This post is part of a HippoCamp 2021 recap series, with guest blog posts written by HippoCamp attendees. Learn more about our conference for creative nonfiction writers.
One fall morning in the late ’60s, when I was in high school, a fast-moving, before-Halloween snow storm dumped several inches of snow on southern Connecticut. School administrators closed school in the middle of the day. Dismissal was chaotic. I missed the bus and had to call my mother to come get me. She was not pleased. That day, I was glad for her fury, because her gumption was the only way we made it home through the two-foot drifts.
I’ve told this story several times over the years, but something didn’t ring true. So, I checked the weather history for Connecticut and discovered that before-Halloween storm never happened.
Was any part of my memory true?
When writing memoir, we put our memories into story form to help us integrate them, according to psychologist John Teske. I attended his fascinating breakout session at the HippoCamp 2021 writers’ conference. “Most people remember the ‘peak’ event,” he said, “because sometimes it’s the obstacle that makes a good story.” As with my fast-moving snow storm, which I remembered during one of the session’s exercises.
“What if you were told that that memory never happened?” Teske asked. “The stories we tell the most often get changed; the memories we feel more confident about are precisely the ones that are less reliable.” I shifted uncomfortably in my chair.
There’s no such thing as truth in memoir writing, according to Teske. “Memories are collaborative; we add things in. It’s hard to deal with this, the motivation about why we remember and how. Is it honesty or lies?” Our egos are built out of a series of self-deceptive tricks, he explained. Honesty is not how memory works; it’s about how emotions work, what our memories are about: feelings.
In writing memoir, we construct stories to help us make sense of our pasts, especially the untellable. But be cautious about those constructed memories, Teske warned. “Ask yourself: where is the camera? Are you really there? Is the camera view from your eyes? If not, the memory is probably constructed, a remembered movie.”
Here’s another story I thought about during the session: Growing up in the 50s and 60s, daylight savings time meant time to play after supper and endless days of summer. Returning to standard time in the fall meant the beginning of school, darkness and homework after dinner. Or did it?
With a little research, I discovered that ‘spring forward’ happened in late April until the mid-80s and earlier thereafter—long before the end of school in June. When I started kindergarten in the mid-50s, ‘fall back’ happened in late October. My memory of beginning school after Labor Day during standard time was flawed, too. I’d constructed movies based on my emotions: summertime joy and something less than that for school.
So, memoirists beware. Our memories do not tell the truth.
Carole Duff is a veteran teacher, serious flutist, avid naturalist, and writer of narrative nonfiction. She posts weekly to her long-standing blog Notes from Vanaprastha, and has written for Brevity blog, Mockingbird, Streetlight Magazine, and The Perennial Gen, for which she is a regular contributor, and other publications. Carole lives in Virginia’s Blue Ridge Mountains with her husband, writer K. A. Kenny, and two, large overly-friendly dogs.