How well do you remember events of ten or twenty years ago?
“Memory is fiction. We select the brightest and the darkest, ignoring what we are ashamed of, and so embroider the broad tapestry of our lives.” ― Isabel Allende, Portrait in Sepia
I first read Portrait in Sepia when it was released in 2000. As I re-read it for the first time this past week, I thought “how ironic this is that this is a novel about memories and I’ve forgotten most of it.”
The storylines of books tend to run together for me because I read a book per week. However, Allende is one of my favorite authors so, logically, I ought to remember more of each novel’s details. Except for high energy action books, I tend to read novels closely; I don’t scan sections or skip descriptions or conversations to get to the so-called “good parts” (as some people call the pivotal scenes).
Several weeks ago, I re-read The House of Spirits, a novel I read in 1982 when it came out and one other time before this year. Again, the details were so hazy it was almost like reading the story for the first time. I can understand why high school and college literature teachers tell us they re-read the books they teach every semester that they reach them.
Even though I forget so many details of novels, I discover new things every time I re-read them. So, in addition to the surprise at how much I’d forgotten, there’s the excitement of seeing a character or an even in a new way.
When people ask me about my childhood, obviously I know most of it. Or, maybe I don’t. If I can’t remember a book in any detail several years after reading it, how reliable is my memory about anything in my past or the country’s past? Sketchy, at best. Though family Christmas letters have long been mocked as falsified (or carefully told) versions of what a family did during every past year, the only way I could be sure when I did something thirty years ago was looking in a binder of old Christmas letters to see what year something happened.
Things get worse when I realize that after using fictionalized bits and pieces of things I saw or did in some of my own novels, I begin to see that the line between what I really did and what a character did in my novel has gotten a little blurry.
We’ve heard often that those who witness traffic accidents and other events are often unreliable. They think they have a clear picture of the event when, in fact, they don’t. They think their view of an event was like that of a stationary security camera. In reality, they glanced away at noises, movements of other people, etc. What they didn’t see, they think they did see because the mind fills in the gaps with what it thinks probably happened. They don’t know they’ve done this, and experts say that a lie detector test won’t pinpoint discrepancies in their versions of events.
An article in the current “Writer’s Chronicle” deals with this issue for the authors of memoirs and historical novels. It’s called “The True Story? How to Deal with Evidential Gaps While Writing a Biography,” by Viola van de Sandt. What really happened during such gaps often comes down to circumstantial evidence. Sometimes, important events can only be sketched in and presumed through fragments of diaries, articles, letters, etc.
I have often wished I’d kept a diary, a cut-and-dried account of daily events. I tried multiple times, but could never stick with it. So I have a lot of gaps in my own personal history. As Allende’s protagonist in Portrait in Sepia said, “I try desperately to conquer the transitory nature of my existence, to trap moments before they evenesce, to untangle the confusion of my past. Every instant disappears in a breath and immediately becomes the past; reality is ephemeral and changing, pure longing.”
I assume my memory is faulty. It’s been proven to be that way many times. Who I am and what I think I saw of daily events is more of an approximation than anything else. If you have a foolproof method of keeping track of your past, I’d sure like to know how you do it.
My novels At Sea and Mountain Song are partially based on my own experiences. But I can’t promise you I know the fact from the fiction in them.