From Memories to Memoirs

by Jack E Nelson


While interviewing my father a number of years ago in preparation for the writing of his biography, he was keen to tell me his earliest memory. He had grown up in a rural community in the forest covered mountains northwest of Portland, Oregon. When he was between two and three years old, his parents were heading home late one afternoon in their horse-drawn buggy, down a narrow, muddy road, through mighty stands of old-growth fir trees. My father was in the buggy as well, up on the seat where he could see out but safely tucked into a small wooden box. It started to rain, and his mother put a blanket over the top of the box to keep the rain off of him. He remembers tearing the blanket covering away because he wanted to be able to see out. His mother carefully replaced the covering, only to have him again, and again, flail his little arms around to get the covering off so he could see what was going on.

There is often much occurring in the recall of earliest memories that can tell us something about how a person views himself or herself. For my father, this incident of him wanting to see out has stuck in his mind, unlike thousands, if not millions, of other episodes in his childhood, because it is symbolically important for him. From an early age he saw himself as a go-getter, someone who wanted to get the most out of life, to do all he could with his life. He wasn't going to let anyone put a shroud over him when there was so much to experience, rain and all. This memory became a self-defining event in his life. Even at the age of seventy-five, when we started work on his biography, he could look back and say, this is the story of my life; I wasn't going to let anyone hold me back.

A University of Michigan psychology professor, John Kotre, in his book White Gloves: How We Create Ourselves Through Memory, has explored at length this connection between memories and meaning. He suggests that our recollections can be much more complex than is often assumed. Memory cells in our brains are not really highly refined digital memory cards designed to retain accurate records of all that enters through our sensors. If this was the case, we would just need the right technique (psychoanalysis, hypnosis, etc.) to evoke precise memories of experiences that have either "decayed" from lack of use or been repressed in our attempts to spare ourselves from pain and suffering. We would also need some pretty tight filtering system to keep from being overwhelmed with memories of trivial things having no particular value to us.

Kotre argues that memories, and he is speaking more specifically about autobiographical memories, are selectively collected, and when recalled are reconstructed rather than simply recovered from the recesses of your mind. There is an interpretive process at work, with information and experiences entering later shaping the memory of earlier events. Your memories adapt to your current outlook. The way you remember an episode from your childhood can change at different stages in your adult life as the significance of the event takes on different meanings for you, and alternative memories may be remembered as being most vivid.

"What" happened generally gets retained better than "when" it occurred. We are not good at recalling dates or, sometimes, even sequences. But those occurrences shaping your understanding of your Self take on an added meaning and become part of the narrative of your life story. Once a part of the storyline of your life, memories are much more secure.

If you are past the age of fifty, you probably remember disproportionately more from the second and third decades of your life. Your adolescence years were full of activities and learning experiences crucial to your identity formation. During your twenties, you made consequential decisions and did things that continue to influence what you do in life. By age fifty when you reflect back, the memories that seem most significant are of experiences having a tracable impact.

Once life settles down into a steady, daily routine, memories tend to run together and poignant reminiscences occur less frequently. We are more apt to remember the beginning of a new job, a new living situation, or a new relationship, and relatively little about the years when we carried on with a regular schedule. If you want a life full of memories, you need to find ways to disrupt the habitual, because you will also more likely remember the endings of jobs, living situations, etc. For some years you can probably remember more about the two week vacations your took, where you did something exciting and altogether different, than you do about the other fifty weeks of the years.

When writing your memoir it can be helpful to bear all this in mind. If accuracy is important regarding some episode, mentioning the corroboration of other people's recollections or citing written documentation from the time will reinforce the point. However, memoir writing is not just recording the facts, it is relating the story behind the facts. Memoirs are about your understanding of what has happened to you, the meaning you have given to your experience of life. Let the storyteller in you take over. Truthfulness should not be sacrificed, but don't be hesitant about telling the story the way you have been able to make sense of it all. What the readers are going to want to learn is not just what you did and what events occurred during your life. They will be eager to know how those occurrences shaped how you understand yourself and how you have made sense of life given all you have experienced.

In this regard memoir writing is "life review." It is an opportunity to put the story of your life all together. Much of the puzzle is completed; there are some things still needing to be figured out. Maybe your earliest childhood memory does set the tone for your life story. The memoir process is one of reconciling oneself to what happened, and if need be, acknowledging one's failings, and affirming the value of one's contributions. Strive for an honest and coherent accounting of your life. Beyond that, you may have wisdom to pass on to others, and you might see some ways in which your life fits into a larger scheme, a family, a historical development, a divine plan.


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