written by Sean Prentiss
Scientific America just released an article entitled, “What Experts Wish You Knew about False Memories.” As a creative nonfiction writer and professor and as someone deeply interested in memory and how it affects the memoirs and essays we write, I was drawn to the ideas within this article. What “What Experts Wish You Knew” does is it invites top memory researchers to discuss what ideas they wish the general public knew about (broken) memory.
Their ideas are extremely relevant to creative nonfiction and this article seemed almost as if written for creative nonfiction writers. So it was with great interest that I read “What Experts Wish You Knew about False Memories.”
The first memory scientist to share ideas was Elizabeth Loftus from the University of California, Irvine. Loftus writes, “Just because someone tells you something with a lot of confidence and detail and emotion, it doesn’t mean it actually happened. You need independent corroboration to know whether you’re dealing with an authentic memory, or something that is a product of some other process.”
This quote made me think of my feelings of reading and writing memoirs. So often we finish a book with the feeling that the memoir felt authentic and believable. Or maybe, with memoirs we like less, we felt that the details of the memoir didn’t ring true. What Loftus reminds us is that how we feel doesn’t equate to what is true or invented. Any good writer should make their work read confidently, and they do that by filling their memoirs with details that drive us, the reader, to emotion. These things—detail and emotion—are the marks of great writers. But, as Loftus mentions, they are not the mark of a true memory. Instead, Loftus writes that humans (or for our purposes I’ll say writers) need to verify memory against independent corroboration. So the only thing that can prove that our memoirs are true is not memory but the facts that confirm our memoirs.
Sean Prentiss is the author of the memoir, Finding Abbey: a Search for Edward Abbey and His Hidden Desert Grave, which won the 2015 National Outdoor Book Award for History/Biography, is a finalist for the Vermont Book Award, and was a finalist for the Colorado Book Award for Creative Nonfiction. Prentiss is also the co-editor of The Far Edges of the Fourth Genre: Explorations in Creative Nonfiction, a creative nonfiction craft anthology. And he is the co-author of the forthcoming environmental writing textbook, Environmental and Nature Writing: A Craft Guide and Anthology. He lives on a small lake in northern Vermont and serves as an associate professor at Norwich University.