written by Sean Prentiss
In my first post, I talked about memory and the ideas that came from “What Experts Wish You Knew about False Memories.” In this post, I will talk about a second researcher who shares ideas about memory. Chris French from Goldsmiths, University of London, writes, “Memory does not work like a video camera, accurately recording all of the details of witnessed events. Instead, memory (like perception) is a constructive process. We typically remember the gist of an event rather than the exact details.”
Creative nonfiction needs details to be compelling. Without details, an essay or memoir will often fall flat and leave the reader unmoved as we wade through page after page of summary. But, as French writes, most memories lack those convincing and powerful details. So we writers are force to invent/create/imagine/speculate/fabricate details that are both major and minor. We almost always do not know exactly what someone said, what our characters were wearing, where those characters were standing, the weather that was going on during the event, the goings-on around our characters, and on and on and on and on and on. These are big and these are small details.
And, according to Loftus and French, we (humans in general and creative nonfiction writers in particular) have so many more things in that fall into the “what we’ve forgotten” category than we have in the “what we remember” category. Really, it seems the “what we remember” pile is filled with little more than snippets and ideas. Not enough information, in all honesty, enough to build a true or factual memoir upon.
This is especially true because as French goes on to discuss, “When we construct a memory, errors can occur. We will typically fill in gaps in our memories with what we think we must have experienced not necessarily what we actually did experience. We may also include misinformation we encountered after the event. We will not even be consciously aware that this has happened.”
So by trying to find our most accurate memories, by probing those memories, we writers corrupt them. So rather than reaching a truer or more factual spot, we’ve created memories (and memoirs) filled with errors.
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.