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.

What Experts Wish You Knew about False Memories, pt. 2

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.

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.