What Experts Wish You Knew about False Memories, pt. 3

written by Sean Prentiss

In my first and second posts, I talked about memory and the ideas that came from “What Experts Wish You Knew about False Memories.” In my third and final post, I look at Chris French’s (from Goldsmiths, University of London) final takeaway about memory: “There is currently no way to distinguish, in the absence of independent evidence, whether a particular memory is true or false. Even memories which are detailed and vivid and held with 100 percent conviction can be completely false.”

So what are we creative nonfiction writers to do? Do we quit our beloved genre? Do we move over to fiction? Do we refuse to call what we write “true” or “honest”?

Those are options, and fair ones. But I prefer to embrace the messiness of creative nonfiction. To live in the murkiness of the human memory. To write knowing that what I put on the page is something different than fact or truth.

Instead, it is my truest memory, which I know, through science, is often wrong. The reader, too, if they’ve looked at the science, should also know that what they are reading is something other than truth or fact. And if we write to the best of our ability, if we research, if we interview others, if we review photos and texts and emails, then what we put on the page is the best we’ve got. We can get no closer to truth and fact.

And this area here is what I call personal mythology, and this is a term I prefer to creative nonfiction (which focuses on nonfiction, or the lack of fiction). (I’ve written more about personal mythology in “Eternal Sunshine of the Creative Nonfiction Mind,” which was published in The Far Edges of the Fourth Genre.) I prefer personal mythology to other terms for this genre because Euhemerus, a Greek mythographer explained myths as “accounts of actual historical events, distorted over many retellings.” So a myth is a story that a culture believes to be true (and may even be true). But those outside the culture believe that these same stories are either false, untrue, or distorted. And this is exactly the way the best creative nonfiction writers write. They write exactly what they believe to be true (while leaning on research). Still, both the reader and writer know, that just like with any myth, though we believe it to be true and though it might even be partially true, still these stories (and all stories) are grounded neither in fact or truth. They are grounded in story, in memory, and for creative nonfiction writers, that might need to be enough.

So rather than seeing creative nonfiction as a genre that fails because it can never access truth and fact, instead we can see it as a genre that works toward truth and facts at all times but most often stories are complicated by myth and memory. And this complication, rather than cheapening our stories, allows them to glow from inside with new insight and contradictions.


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.

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