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.


Write down your memories for your kids. . .

…but you better have something extraordinary to say if you want to convince me a published version of those memories will be a bestseller.

When I was a kid, I read books about explorers who kept journals about where they went and what they saw. Some of them happened to know how to draw and included illustrations showing where they went and what they saw.

memoirsecretsI was just an everyday kid going to school. Nothing unique there. In spite the fact most of the people who knew me at school would describe me as nondescript, I kept logs (I liked sea stories) and journals (because guys didn’t keep diaries with hideous phrases such as “Dear Diary, Jenny looked at me in between classes today like she wished we were alone in the dark”).

The thing is, I was already too much aware of the fact that writers’ journals and private papers often got published after they were dead and (hence) unable to stop greedy heirs from trying to make a buck off stuff that was supposed to be private. Practically speaking, what this meant was that I made myself look better in my journal entries than I was.

“How will this read in the future?” I asked. This kept my journals from being the cathartic process of self-discovery modern-day advocates of journaling claim is possible. You’ll heal. You’ll change your life. You’ll grow. Maybe so, but truth wasn’t for me.

Consequently, I saved the healing/growing process for my fiction where I tell a story about somebody else while including disguised secrets about myself that I would never dare write down in a journal. These days, everybody and his/her brother is writing a memoir, including people who’re still in high school. But why?

I can’t decide whether all these memoirs by “regular people” are a service to human kind or examples of arrogance run amok.

Maybe some day my kids and your kids will be interested in some of our best true stories about life in an era that will seem very foreign to them by the time they’re reaching middle age. Maybe they’ll want to know about their family and where there ancestors came from and what it was like to live during those dark ages times when telephones were attached to the wall with a cord and didn’t show movies.

But, should you publish those memories as a book? I have no answer to this because–being 37.5% psychic–I know that the moment I say that we shouldn’t, people will come up with a hundred examples of “regular people’s” memoirs that had a great impact on the world. That can happen.

I do like the idea of continuity, the kinds of things we read about in oral history projects that give folks in later generations a sense of what life was like for people in their parents and grandparents generations. Perhaps we can provide that kind of information for our kids. Maybe they’ll never read it. We may never know.

My folks used to send a Christmas letter out every year. Years later, my brothers and I would actually find ourselves referring to these old letters because we could no longer remember what year we saw Niagara falls or when our father received an award. If I’d kept a journal, I would know all this.

If I did know it, I find it hard to imagine that thousands of people would race to the bookstore to buy even a well-edited version of that journal, along with a snappy title and a jaw-dropping cover.

An author’s fiction already contains enough secrets in it than he dares disclose any other way.


VisitingAuntRubyCoverMalcolm R. Campbell is the author of “Visiting Aunt Ruby,” and Kindle short story that he’ll swear on a stack of Bibles didn’t happen in “real life.”



Writers: How Tall Are You?

“If you aren’t in over your head, how do you know how tall you are?

– T. S. Eliot

In his article in the January/February 2016 issue of Poets & Writers Magazine called “Project Empathy,” Lee Martin advises those writing memoirs to keep in mind that the words on the page will never be as real as the lives we have lived.

poetswriterscover“We have to accept that fact and then forget it, so our subject matter won’t overwhelm us.” He goes on to suggest additional ways writers can approach difficult material…getting at emotionally charged issues through small details…letting the story tell itself without trying to say everything we feel about the horror of it or the joy of it.

In response to the quotation from Eliot, he says that “We should all feel as if we’re in over our heads when we write; that’s how we know we’re writing about something that really matters.”

If you have access to a library with a copy of Poets & Writers, I suggest reading this article whether you’re writing a memoir or writing a novel. I’ve often found the magazine available at Barnes & Noble stores.

When we think about how tall we are as writers, it doesn’t mean believing we’re taller than somebody famous. And when we think about writing about something that really matters, it doesn’t mean becoming full of ourselves because we are tackling an important subject of the day.

We do know what matters to us. We often avoid it, thinking who am I to write about this, thinking I can’t deal with this, thinking others have more dramatic stories to tell about this, and what this reminds me of are the lists of things we never want to talk about even with our loved ones or best friends. If you’ve known another person for a long time, you know what you cannot ask them because they refuse to discuss it. Maybe it’s something that happened in a war, the lost of a spouse or a child, a huge embarrassment at work.

If you have things you won’t talk about, they may be the stories you should be telling. Why? Because they’re important to you. Even in your silence, they have played a profound role in shaping your life. “Sooner or later,” writes Martin, “we have to face who we are in the world around us. We have to respond. We have to speak from the truest part of ourselves.”

When we respond–or, at least, try to respond–we find out how tall we are. A lot of us learn through the stories we read. We step into another person’s shoes and find out what it’s like to see what they have seen. What have you seen? Perhaps it will make a good story and perhaps it will resonate with the very people who need to hear it.

If you hurt while you’re writing it, you’re probably getting it right.


Malcolm R. Campbell is the author of “Conjure Woman’s Cat,” a story about racism and folk magic in northern Florida in the 1950s. The Kindle edition is on sale for 99 cents on January 6th.