Memory in Memoirs

Blue Spruce tree, March 6, 2021.

A challenge of writing memoirs is conjuring memory. It’s not as simple as booting a computer.

Yesterday I wrote about a trip to Vannes, France. There is more to write. There are photographs, a trip journal, and souvenirs to aid my memory. The exchange officer trip will describe more generally what it was like working with allied troops in Europe during the late 1970s. I spent more time with the French because I studied French language and literature in high school and college. When this type of opportunity arose, there weren’t many American officers who could speak French. If there were armed conflict with the Soviet Union, my destiny would likely have been to become a liaison officer between U.S. forces and the French as part of NATO combined operations.

Clear memories of that period come to mind but they need prompting. It was a process of reading my trip journal then beginning to tell the story. After I wrote the post, I slept on it and added details this morning. I may add other things by the time those passages make it into the book. The mind retains a surprising amount of detail about our past experiences. It is a literal memory, as if one is re-living it. Part of the challenge of writing about memories is to remember the who, what, where, when and why of an experience. Our natural capacity to do this is high.

Once a memory is recalled, as it is being recalled, editing begins. Memories often seem too many, prompting the questions, what should be included? What left out? I don’t ask these actual questions, but proceed to certain details to make a point. Our mind works toward survival, and to an extent, confirming the biases of what we currently think or believe. A memoir-writer must resist that tendency. It is often hard enough just to remember what happened.

Memories don’t exist in a book or narrative for their own sake. One invokes them to serve the broader purpose in the narrative of the piece. In that there is an ideology being supported. While there is an emotional engagement in evoking memories, for a memoir writer there is a reason a specific memory appears in the text. It must serve the point of the book. Unlike the younger me in yesterday’s post, one has to learn to control the amount of pastis consumed as your hosts line up drinks in front of you. Otherwise you’ll get drunk on the memories and become unable to write anything worth reading.

I continue to be at the point of determining what I can remember of my life. The next step is setting priorities and tying memories to the themes of the book. My inclination is to use the strongest memories, most of which I have written about previously, because that is what has become important to me. At the same time, I am finding new meaning in what I remember. That, too is important for consideration. In some ways, it is the point of writing a memoir at all. If we aren’t willing and able to transcend what we already believe about our lives in society, then it hardly seems worth the effort.

Dealing with memory in a practical way is another reason the editing of drafts takes so long. I believe the effort and time spent will be worth it.