What do you do if you forget things?

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gettingby

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I can't remember names. I can't remember dates. I know I went somewhere twice, but my memory has merged the trips together. I had actually forgotten I had been there twice when I was writing about it. Now, I'm not sure what to do. How do you handle writing a memoir when your memory has holes and gaps?
 

hearosvoice

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I can't remember names. I can't remember dates. I know I went somewhere twice, but my memory has merged the trips together. I had actually forgotten I had been there twice when I was writing about it. Now, I'm not sure what to do. How do you handle writing a memoir when your memory has holes and gaps?

The recency effect of memory definitely manifests itself when writing a memoir. My older memories, even important ones, are very fragmented. Even when it comes to past events I've dwelled on. My sibling once said the most horrible thing I've ever heard anyone utter in my life, and I want to include it to show what degree his delinquency was growing up, but for the life of me I can't remember what triggered him to say it (and in all likelihood it was probably something very minor, but his anger was there regardless, which is why I don't remember it). I have no idea how I'm going to work this in yet.

On the other hand, when it comes to more recent events, even stuff that I rarely think about, I find that when I sit down and start writing about it, all the necessary details come to the surface of my memory and I'm able to write out complete fleshed-out play-by-play scenes for them.

It's tough because my memoir spans the first 25 years of my life. I'm really adamant about including childhood events, but my memory of them just has many gaps. I find that my writing is someone bifurcated: older fragment memories that take place over a longer period of time (which is probably best organized according to theme or subject or character, and often feels very aimless and info-dump-y when I write about them), and newer more complete memories for which I am able to write fleshed-out scenes that feel more like a plot with driving action, cause and effect, building tension, suspense, etc.

I find with the older memories, I rely on trying to really write witty, humorous, intelligent, and elegant prose in order to spur the reader to keep going, whereas with newer memories the motivation to keep reading is built-in because it feels more like a plot with a forthcoming payoff. Oh, do I struggle with old memories that I desperately want to include and can't bring myself to part with. I know I probably need to take a good hard look at them and distill which of the older memories are really necessary toward the main gist of the overall story, but it's so hard.

Anyway, just as memory gaps are a reality, so is embellishment. A writing teacher once told me that "the rule" for memoir is 5% of it can be embellished.

I personally don't agonize over minor embellishments. For example, with my aforementioned...well...example, with my sibling saying the most horrible thing I've ever heard in my life, I'll probably have to conflate it with another incident where I actually DO remember what his gripe or the argument was about (he wanted my parents to buy him something). I really don't think this is bastardizing the integrity of the memoir by combining them. Because both events happened and reasonably could have even happened in tandem based on the context/circumstances, and the point is to illuminate his legitimate consistent behavioral misconduct, which is a factor of my main story.

I honestly feel as though if you need to embellish even more than 5% for the sake of the story, you should go for it and just change the genre of your book. Don't let the genre define the story.
 

hearosvoice

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Also, I think with old fragmented memories, being too accurate can relegate them to a "flashback only" pile. By this I mean you can only bring up an old memory fragment if something in a present or more recent scene reminds you of it. And I think this is very limiting especially if you want the reader to experience a story from the start to the finish that you've determined. I think it enhances a story if the reader is able to experience it as if they are there from the beginning to the end. This is kind of hard to articulate. But perhaps another way of putting it is I want the reader to experience the early parts of the story as scenes as well as the latter more recent parts of the story. Not simply "informational backstory" then current/recent scenes.
 

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What is this? Some kind of stalker question?
I think perhaps by simply embracing that there are holes and gaps. Memoirs are not supposed to be a blow by blow record of accuracy. it's about your life and how you experienced it and experience it now. In your semi example you can either rewrite it to reflect the two separate trips, let it stand as it is, a conflated trip or, directly address the inability to be certain. All these things go into making you, the protagonist, an interesting and layered character. Much more interesting than a Dragnet police report, "just the facts mam, nothing but the facts." No one wants to read that snooze fest.
 

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Agree wholeheartedly re: not to be facts. A memoir is not a report, not journalism. To me it's about the emotional journey.

and ps: to clarify. Not made up facts. Just all the facts don't need to be included.
 
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I've worked with a few people on the writing of their memoirs, and they've all struggled to recall some things. What we found useful was for them to take that shred of memory and look at it in different ways: for example, to try to recall what they were wearing at the time, or to imagine what a bystander would have said about the event, or perhaps to describe it in terms of their five senses. Looking at what seems like relatively insignificant details like these really enhances a person's power of recall, and brings up a lot of useful stuff. It's very effective.
 

gettingby

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I think perhaps by simply embracing that there are holes and gaps. Memoirs are not supposed to be a blow by blow record of accuracy. it's about your life and how you experienced it and experience it now. In your semi example you can either rewrite it to reflect the two separate trips, let it stand as it is, a conflated trip or, directly address the inability to be certain. All these things go into making you, the protagonist, an interesting and layered character. Much more interesting than a Dragnet police report, "just the facts mam, nothing but the facts." No one wants to read that snooze fest.

I think this is what I have to do, either address it or let it stand. I know I'm not going to remember any more than I do. I hadn't thought about addressing it in the writing, but I think this might be the best thing. Or I could let it stand as one trip, but does that mean I am lying to readers? Most of this memory (this memory not the book) happens in one part of the place, but at the end of my own memory, my stay their ends in a different part of the same location. I know I wasn't in both places during the same trip. I can remember my rooms, two different rooms. I am sure I was there twice and both times were really close together. The other problem is I have no idea where I was in between these trips. I actually remember my first stay and the very end of my second stay. That's it. This is very frustrating. At the same time, this isn't a huge part of my memoir. For the overall story I'm telling, it matters very little or not at all that I went to this place twice.

At the same time, it is weird to realize you might have forgotten things during a time of your life you feel like other people would be interested in reading about.
 

Siri Kirpal

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If you remember the two trips conflated, you're safe to write it that way.

Do you have anyone who was there with you on either of those trips? I talked with everyone I felt comfortable contacting and asked for details. I had specific questions, but I also asked for whatever they remembered about the event in question. The answers were a revelation and triggered my own memories.

I also used news articles and music I listened to (or sang) at the time to put me into the memory zone.

Blessings,

Siri Kirpal
 

Bluegate

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What is this? Some kind of stalker question?
I think this is what I have to do, either address it or let it stand. I know I'm not going to remember any more than I do. I hadn't thought about addressing it in the writing, but I think this might be the best thing. Or I could let it stand as one trip, but does that mean I am lying to readers? Most of this memory (this memory not the book) happens in one part of the place, but at the end of my own memory, my stay their ends in a different part of the same location. I know I wasn't in both places during the same trip. I can remember my rooms, two different rooms. I am sure I was there twice and both times were really close together. The other problem is I have no idea where I was in between these trips. I actually remember my first stay and the very end of my second stay. That's it. This is very frustrating. At the same time, this isn't a huge part of my memoir. For the overall story I'm telling, it matters very little or not at all that I went to this place twice.

At the same time, it is weird to realize you might have forgotten things during a time of your life you feel like other people would be interested in reading about.

Based on what you have written here in this thread I think it sounds like you'd be perfectly safe to simply focus more on the location and event/s and much less on trying to get the exact timing accurate. Even a simple device such as "...sometimes the past is hazy, was I there once or twice? Some answers may never come." There you get to write it to the best of your recollection while allowing for the fallacies of memory. No harm, no foul.
Believe me, we all have memory gaps, some of us like the Grand Canyon.
 

hearosvoice

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When I started writing my memoir, I cozied up with the mantra that your memory naturally distills the important parts b/c they obviously left an emotional impression on you. Thus, if you don't remember it, it's not important.

But I'm starting to stray from this and trying to structure my memoir more like a fiction novel narrative. I feel like when I don't fill in the gaps, it comes across too navel-gazey and I'm not doing enough work to make it read smoothly for the reader.

I honestly am starting to believe that it's good to rearrange things in order for them to conform to a traditional plot line, accuracy be damned. Just as long as you are not inventing events out of thin air.

Personally, I think letting your memory and it's limitations define your story arc is hazardous. Instead, I think a plot structure with causes and effects should define your story arc and fill in true or even just plausible details where there are gaps.

Initially, I would write about the condition of my memories (e.g. "I vaguely remember...", "It's possible that this happened but my memory is hazy...", "But I VIVIDLY recall the..."). But now I worry that that draws the reader toward the event of me writing and away from the events I am writing about.
 
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Siri Kirpal

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Saying Was it once or twice we went to...? is interesting.

Saying My memory is vague, will lose you readers. It sounds like a snooze.

Also, in memoirs, "I remember" is taken for granted. You don't need to say so UNLESS sometime in the past you remembered something that changed your course of action or your attitude.

Blessings,

Siri Kirpal
 

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If you and a friend went out to dinner together not only would you remember things slightly differently, you'd remember different things about the evening and you'd experience different things: if you sat across the table from one another you'd each have very different views, if you ate different meals one of you might really enjoy the evening while the other might very much dislike it; and if one of you visited the bathroom, for example, there would be portions of the evening where your experiences were very different, because you'd be in different places for that time.

If you then each wrote an account of that dinner, those accounts would be very different to one another. But they'd both be the truth.

There are always shades of grey involved in "truth".
 

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