On Memoir and Memory

Telling a good story is more important than telling the absolute truth. At least that’s what I say when my kids accuse me of straying from the hard facts (usually, and annoyingly, right in the middle of a really good story). “It’s Irish storytelling,” I reply. “Would you rather hear an interesting story or an absolutely true one?” OK, if you are a Superior Court judge or a reporter for the New York Times, you probably prefer the latter, but if you are anyone else, I bet it’s the former. And what is truth anyway? And what about the nature of memory? Some recent studies have put memory on the stand, and it comes up wanting. As someone with as much detailed long-term memory as Dory from Finding Nemo, this doesn’t surprise me. But for those who pride themselves on their ability to recall past events, it may be disconcerting. Psychologists at the University of St. Andrews studied the accuracy of adult subjects’ memories from childhood and concluded that “human memory can be remarkably fragile and even inventive when it comes to remembering past events, often completely rewriting ‘autobiographical belief.’”

One example of the fallibility of memory rests in the fraught area of eyewitness testimony, which recent research suggests is guilty of more false convictions than all other factors combined. In fact, faulty eyewitness testimony was the culprit in a more than 70 percent of the 329 DNA exoneration cases studied by the Innocence Project. Another study finds that each time you tell a story you get further from the truth of it. The first telling is the truest, and then each iteration is a memory of the telling rather than of the actual memory.

The captivating podcast Serial explores these very questions of the veracity of memory and what truth is the truth. Think about it: What could you accurately remember, if pressed, from one afternoon three months ago? Just another unremarkable day among many. Do you remember what you were wearing, where you went, or even who you saw? Probably not with any level of detail or certainty.

This is not a lengthy preamble to a hearty defense of Brian Williams or Bill O’Reilly, I promise. These guys are in the journalists’ box. They are supposed to report the events exactly as they experienced them. The very nature of their job is to report the story so members of the public can come to their own conclusions about what the story means to them and decide their own truth. Listeners might remember exactly where we were when the Berlin Wall came down or the Twin Towers fell, big events like this get seared in our memoires. But chances are our recall gets a little fuzzier on the smaller details of everyday life.

So, no, I am not defending Williams or O’Reilly. Those guys had a job to do, and they did it poorly the moment they stepped out of the journalists’ box and into the one inhabited by storytellers. (Read journalist David Carr’s The Night of the Gun if you want an excellent example of memoir written within the constraints of investigative journalism.) I am ruminating on this truth and memory stuff because I just finished editing a memoir, and it got me to thinking about what makes a good story. Specifically, what makes a good memoir?

It does need to be basically true; it’s a memoir after all, not a work of fiction. And part of the reason we gravitate toward memoir is because we believe it to be a true story. I’d argue that there is a need to distinguish between levels of knowable truth. There is a whole lot of terrain between the veracity of what your mother might have said to you at the dinner table when you were twelve and what the public record states. But in the end, we only keep turning the pages if it’s also a good story. The biggest mistake memoirists make is trying so hard to stick to the facts, to recount the “truth,” that they tell a boring story. (For the record, this was not the case with the manuscript I have been working on.)

Even in this Internet age, with so much information available at our fingertips, do readers expect the memoirist to get it right? Do they really care, or do they want to be told a good story? Of course, we know what happens when a memoirist strays too far across that line of truth (google A Million Little Pieces if you’re curious), but what about the middle ground? We know that it is an illusion to think that our memory is flawless, so should a memoirist spend their time crafting their story or worrying about the veracity of every single detail? The latter isn’t possible. The truth is slippery. Memory is fallible. My advice for memoirists is this: Do the very best job you can telling your truth. Your story. Your life the way you remember it. And most importantly, tell it well.