Using the Fallacy of Memory to Create Effective Memoir

memory and memoir
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“No memoirist writes for long without experiencing an unsettling disbelief about the reliability of memory, a hunch that memory is not, after all, just memory.”  —Patricia Hampl

While speaking at the first annual HippoCamp, a creative nonfiction conference, I attended an excellent session by writer and professor Wendy Fontaine (@wendymfontaine): “Where Memory Fails, Writing Prevails: How Writers Use the Fallacies of Memory to Create Effective Memoir.”

She discussed the seven “sins of memory”—drawn from research by Harvard psychologist Daniel L. Schacter—and how writers can use these sins to convey meaning in their stories, since they can reveal more truth when the distortion of memory is laid bare. In other words: The biological distortions of memory have the potential to open up personal, emotional truths on the page.

You read more about all seven sins here, but here are the particularly poignant ones that Fontaine discussed:

  • Transience. This is the decreasing accessibility of your memory over time—like the simple fact you can’t remember much—or any—detail from a Christmas or birthday that happened ten or twenty years ago. In such situations where you can’t access memories, Fontaine suggests you can either leave those parts out, or you can defer to someone else who does remember.
  • Misattribution. This is just blatantly getting an important thing wrong. Fontaine gave an example of recalling a difficult moment during her divorce, when she was walking outside, cold, in the snow. When she looked back at court records, she saw that moment occurred in August, when it couldn’t have possibly been snowing. Fontaine says uncovering misattributions like this point to larger emotional truths—in this case, that she felt cold and alone.
  • Suggestibility. This is when you incorporate misinformation into your own memory due to outside influence. For example, someone may ask you leading questions or deceive you in some way. Also, research shows that each time we access a memory, we change it, resulting in a big game of telephone. Memories aren’t static; they can change. Which brings us to …
  • Bias, or remembering through a filter. Our current self—our current knowledge and beliefs—create distortions in how we recall what’s happened to us. The classic example: If a relationship sours, we tend to have an overwhelmingly negative perspective on past states of the relationship.

Fontaine pointed out that perhaps the most important aspect of bias, for writers, is the element of hindsight, or when we apply knowledge held in the present to the past. (This is basically a definition of memoir!)

While science might call this the “I knew it all along mentality,” writers would call it “What I didn’t know then mentality.” By writing about our lives, we find some new element of awareness, knowledge, or clarity that allows us to see events in a new light. We uncover a dimension of understanding that we didn’t have access to at a certain time. 

If you’ve ever read The Situation and The Story by Vivian Gornick, this is exactly what she talks about. The situation is what happened, the story is understanding and reflecting on it—the hindsight.

Fontaine emphasized that if you find a memory that’s been distorted, the story often lies in exploring why it’s been distorted. Truth resides in both the facts and in the distortion.

To explore these concepts further, Fontaine offered the following reading list. I’m grateful for her permission to share it with you.

“It still comes as a shock to realize that I don’t write about what I know, but in order to find out what I know.”

—Patricia Hampl

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