What Experts Wish You Knew About False Memories, pt. 1

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.

The Fifteen Percent Rule

written by Joe Kraus

  1. I believe – after Hemingway, Strunk & White, and most of Humphrey Bogart’s characters – that classic American “style” turns on brevity. Say what you have to say, then call it a wrap.
  2. Like almost everyone else I know, revision frustrates me. When I write a piece that feels finished, I have a hard time working up the will to operate on it further. Yet I know I have to. I know art comes more from revision than inspiration.
  3. If it helps, I have a rule, or at least a recommendation: once you have an essay or a story that “does it,” that accomplishes what you realize you set out to do, pledge to cut it by 15 percent. Don’t cheat. First get to the stage where it feels finished. Then commit to cutting almost the exact number. (If you’re not much of a math person, take your word count and multiply it by .85. That’s your target.)
  4. Start by finding the part that does the least to move the piece forward. In a 3000-word essay, that will usually be a paragraph that, as you wrote, was as much about ‘catching your breath’ as an author as it was moving the argument forward. You wrote it because you needed to sum up for yourself what you’d been saying. It isn’t wasted work, but it’s more a half step forward than a full.
  5. Cut it. Take a deep breath if you must, but highlight the sucker and hit delete. If it really hurts, save the file under a new name (I usually go with Title Year-Month-Day because then it gets alphabetized chronologically) and slice with the knowledge that you can go back.
  6. Assuming you write a standard length paragraph, that should cut roughly 150 words, about a third of the 450 you’d need from a 3000-word piece.
  7. Then kill your darlings. Find sentences that look good, but that mostly just repeat or anticipate. They’re in there. Don’t flatter yourself that you drafted with perfect precision. Find them and take them out.
  8. You should always do that, even as you’re drafting, but work here with a purpose. You’re a button man for the mob. It’s not personal. It’s business.
  9. Expect that to take another five percent off your word count. In an average 3000-word essay, that’s five or six sentences, roughly 150 words.
  10. Finally, get surgical. If a word or phrase can go, ice it.
  11. Start with the low-hanging fruit. Kill any extra ‘that’s or ‘which’s. Look for prepositional phrases that add four or five words to the end of otherwise tight sentences. Take out half your adjectives and at least three quarters of your adverbs. Tighten subjects (grammatical subjects) that take three or four words.
  12. Then read your work aloud, sentence by sentence, testing for words you don’t need. If you’ve played along this far, it can get addictive. You’ve cut things that mattered. What’s an extra “in the end” or “however” next to the blood on your hands from that pretty, deleted sentence?
  13. At this point, I sometimes feel I could go on forever. The cutting starts to feel like the goal. There’s always another sentence to slice. You can always make the piece even more elegantly slender.
  14. Here’s where the “rule” comes in handiest. You’ve got a goal. You know your number. Work to it, but not beyond. You’ll get the remaining five percent one superfluous word at a time, but you’ll get there. Then stop.
  15. Finally, set the piece down for at least a day. When you go back to it, read with one question foremost: is anything missing? If not (and usually it isn’t) then you’ve done your job. It may not feel any better to you at first (it rarely does for me), but trust you’ve made a real difference. As I re-read my own work, as the memory of specific surgeries fades, I usually get more and more satisfied. I’d thought it was finished before. Now I know, boiled down and tighter, it probably is.


Joseph Kraus teaches Creative Writing and American Literature at the University of Scranton where he also directs the honors program, and is the co-author of An Accidental Anarchist, (Academy Chicago 2001) which served as a basis for Aleksandar Hemon’s National Book Award finalist The Lazarus Project. He’s had his creative work published, among other places, in The American Scholar, Oleander Review, Riverteeth, and Birkensake. He’s also won a 2004 Dorothy Sargent Rosenberg Memorial poetry prize, the 2008 Moment Magazine/Karma Foundation Prize for short fiction, and was nominated for a Pushcart Prize in 2010 by Southern Humanities Review.

Can You Help Me with Some Writing?

written by Michael Heiss

The hardest thing to do to a friend is to say “No.”  As a writer, I find its something that has been happening more and more.  Most of my friends are not artists.  They work in finance, or accounting, or broadcasting, and often they ask me, “Can you read this memo?” or “Can you take a look at this presentation before I go in front of my boss?  I want to make sure I sound smart.”  Doesn’t seem like too much to ask, right?  I never had a problem saying “no” to these people when it came to these things.  But, as I’ve tried to become more professional with my work, I’ve found that I’ve had to start doing so.  When I proofread other people’s work, I tend to stop what i’m doing (my own work) and put the effort into theirs.  This leaves me with either 1) no time for my own work, or 2) no energy left for my work. Most of the time, it’s both.

I’ve had to start saying “no” because I’m realizing the value of my craft.  I wouldn’t ask my accountant friend to do my taxes free of charge.  He might, but I wouldn’t feel comfortable with it, because I value his time and effort as an accountant.  Maybe, the more I say “no,” the more they’ll value me as an author.

The changes may not have worked on them yet, but I’ve had a lot more time for my own work, so the changes are working on me.

Faces in Reel Time

written by Garrett Rowlan

This happened to me years ago. I live near Pasadena, and went by bus, as I often do, to the Westside. I was heading toward the J. Paul Getty Museum. It was a sunny day (duh, I live in LA), cloudless, with gusts blowing off the ocean. They whipped through the steel-and-glass canyons of Westwood as I stepped off the bus. I walked past the L.A. Fitness where I saw faces contort in agony and ecstasy as they worked the Stairmaster, their eyes rolled upward toward bracketed televisions like a modern take on Bernini’s statue of Saint Theresa. The shuttle bus took me up a hill overlooking Bel Air to the Getty Museum.

I ascended travertine steps, crossed a pavilion shaped like a large glass dome, and then climbed a second set of marble stairs. I entered “The Passions,” an exhibit designed by the video artist Bill Viola. For weeks, banners for the show had been flung up like enormous kites over the streets of Los Angeles, and so I decided to see what it was.

Removing my sunglasses, I entered a series of connected galleries, each having a series of liquid crystal panels hanging from white walls. Suspended in those darken frames were motionless faces that changed almost imperceptibly. A blink, the eruption of a tear, lips parted slightly as if to release a sigh…each occurred with a glacial slowness. In one diptych, called “Silent Mountain,” photographic stills from which had been used in the promotional banners, a woman and man both moved at a faster, though still sub-normal speed as they writhed in slow-slow motion under the wrath of some private agony. In another screen, done at a pace just under real time, a tableaux of people reacted in different ways to some unknown, doleful sight.

I’ve always been susceptible to slow motion, ever since the violent ending of Bonnie and Clyde made a visceral impression on me. A few years ago, at the Geffen Museum in downtown Los Angeles, I saw “24 Hour Psycho” by the Scottish video artist Gordon Douglas in which Hitchcock’s horror film was run in silent and extreme slow-motion. The effect was instructive. Douglas’s “take” on Hitchcock showed me how film time and language and narration depend upon an established temporality.

But I’d never experienced anything like my reaction to the Viola exhibit. In the free pamphlet that accompanied the exhibition, I had read that Viola’s portraits were shot on high-speed film that was slowed upon playback in order to capture “in-between states, transitions and ambiguous or mixed emotions.” He succeeded, at least with me, and maybe too well. After a few minutes, slowed rhythms crept into my perceptions as I watched people walking through the darkened galleries.

Unspoken complications filled their faces, lit by the light from the video screens. I saw visages that were like the video screen of their thoughts, almost flickering, riddled by their own reflections. In the gallery and later, standing on a patio outside the exhibition with a clear view all the way to the Pacific Ocean, they streamed past me, faces complex, unreadable. The atoms that composed them were in constant flux. The human face is nothing more than an infinite regress, or progress, made flesh. Any expression is only a shading of its antecedent. No emotion is pure. Slow motion shows that what we see on another face is only a palimpsest’s topmost layer. I slipped on mirrored sunglasses against the multiple exposures I saw.

Eventually, as I sat, my vision was restored. The world, no doubt aided by the cup of black coffee I had purchased, sped up to normal. Each face lost its nuance, became subsumed by the Gestalt of one dominant emotion. Still for a time there I could believe in the possibility of a parallel universe, just one tic or frown or nod away. As Joni Mitchell once wrote, “Only a river of changing faces/ Looking for an ocean.”


Garrett Rowlan is a retired sub teacher from Los Angeles. His website is garrettrowlan.com

Not in My Backyard

written by Kelly McMasters

In my small suburban backyard, there is an invisible line that separates what is mine from what belongs to my neighbor. This border recently became visible when the lawn was raked and seeded, creating a verifiable delineation. For most of the year, though, the line confuses my two small children, both in its invisibility and in my suggestion that they not cross it.

But no one is ever out there, they protest. Why would they care if we just made third base right there?  These are good questions: I don’t know if the neighbors would mind us extending our border and temporarily claiming a bit of their unused space for ours because I’ve never asked. No one is ever around when we are outside. Sometimes I think: Let the kids play! The neighbors will never know! But that doesn’t feel like a satisfying answer, morally or otherwise. It would be easier, I think, if we just put up a fence.

I found myself wishing for a different kind of fence this summer while working on an essay. As I delved back years into my memory and recreated scenes on paper, there were moments when I questioned if something—a conversation, a context, a point of view—truly belonged to me. It is in my head, so is it mine? If the other person who shares that memory is not around to ask if they would care if I used it, does that make it okay to just tramp on across the line? And if they are around, and I do ask, and they say no—is that their right?

Much of creative nonfiction seems to come down to the act of claiming. Venerable British novelist John le Carré recently published a memoir called The Pigeon Tunnel. While a memoir from an esteemed 80-something author makes great publishing sense, a recent review by William Boyd in The Guardian [Link: https://www.theguardian.com/books/2016/sep/08/the-pigeon-tunnel-john-le-carre-review-memoir-autobiography?] interrogated why a memoir would follow so closely on the heels of what was a fairly exhaustive biography published about Le Carré just last year. He finds a hint in the memoir’s introduction: “A recently published account of my life offers thumbnail versions of one or two of the stories, so it naturally pleases me to reclaim them as my own, tell them in my own voice and invest them as best as I can with my own feeling.” The reviewer goes on to posit, “it must be very hard to read a 672-page version of your life where all manner of private matters – about your parents, upbringing, marriages, children, love affairs, arguments, mistakes, feuds, earnings and tax arrangements – are revealed to a reading public as a matter of historical record. I think anyone can comprehend the urge to say: well, it wasn’t exactly like that, it was more like this.”

But what if you are not a writer, and don’t have the tools or clout to revise what Boyd calls “the historical record”? How must it feel for the non-writing public who happen to be in the lives, either as sun or satellite, of nonfiction writers? Even when crafted with great care and tenderness, there is discomfort in seeing yourself reduced to a character on a page. The risk is even greater when the writer chooses territory with high stakes and fallout.

My children’s concerns about our yard are not based on legal issues—is this right?—but instead they question intention. We’re not hurting anyone, they argue. They won’t even know. When does the violation occur? When we step over the border, or only if we do something destructive while we are on their side? We share memories with people throughout our entire lives. The line often only becomes tricky when we publish—when we claim a memory as ours within the borders of a white page with black ink.

Until I committed my memoires to paper in that essay, I never questioned my claim on them—they belonged to the ether of memory, somewhere inside my brain, which made them mine. But in preparing to publish, I find myself wishing I could circle my memories with permanent ink, know that I have a right to them and how far those rights extend. When the lawn was newly seeded, it was easy for me to point and tell my children: here, this is the line. But now, as the seeds root and the bright green of the new grass fades, it is becoming harder to discern. So instead, we turn it into a game: we imagine there is a length of fishing-line stretched across our backyard, a tripwire that we will only know we’ve crossed when it is too late.