Re-Writing Life

In one of the earliest examples of autobiography that the literary canon possesses, Jean-Jacques Rousseau acknowledges the inconsistency of memory. Somewhere in the early sections of The Confessions–between the detailed descriptions of his public flashing and private masturbation–Rousseau writes:


I am writing entirely from memory, without notes or materials to recall things to my mind. There are some events in my life that are as vivid as if they had just occurred. But there are gaps and blanks that I cannot fill except by means of a narrative as muddled as the memory I preserve of the events.

Rousseau admits that some of his memories are muddled, which will lead to a muddled narrative. In other words, in  one of the few literary genres that should be based in fact, Rousseau is telling us that he’ll do his best, but he’s not making any promises. He is limited by his own memory’s ability to recall things as they happened. Memoir and autobiography are full of examples of authors making similar confessions.

Shouldn’t we (writers, people, whatever) strive for accuracy? What happens when memory fails us?


I’ve committed a sin that I commit  far too often. I have looked back through the pages of an old journal from a half-decade ago.

And there she is, a presence I haven’t thought of in any significant way in so many years:

Last night I looked at pictures of [her]…I still haven’t talked to her since the last message I sent her (‘whenever I think of you, I only feel anger’). It’s weird, really. It feels like all of the things that happened between us never happened…like we never dated at all. It’s like I never met her…when I think back, I’m not even sure that I’ve ever experienced anything except for this moment right now.

Aside from the fact that it includes what may be the greatest “last message” to ever be sent, it illustrates a self-aware failure of my memory. Even now, I can see only a blurry image of her face. I know what she looked like, but the image is fuzzy at best. I can tell you she had a crooked smile, wavy dark hair, a sharp jaw line, and a petite body. But this is factual recall. Even describing her, I can’t see her face or hear her voice.


memory journal

Memory, according to the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, “labels a diverse set of cognitive capacities by which we retain information and reconstruct past experiences, usually for present purposes.” I think this is incredibly important work that our brain does–especially for writers. Even if we don’t write non-fiction, we still dip into the recesses of our experience and repurpose memories for our current projects.

The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy continues: “We remember events which really happened, so memory is unlike pure imagination. Yet, in practice, there can be close interactions between remembering, perceiving, and imagining (emphasis mine).”

The entry goes on to imply that memory is closely linked to intense emotion which can cause mis-rememberings (which may not be a real word).


It’s that moment, months after a terrible break-up, when you’re at the bar and a sad song comes on that reminds you of her and you think about her smile and her laugh and her body in the darkness, wiggling next to you. You forget her yelling, her manipulation, her insults, and you go climb back into bed with her because your memory screwed you again.



And even in these moments, when I write for the blog, I conflate stories and people and memories into one convenient narrative, I end stories that are still ongoing, or I reassign words from one mouth to another. While all of those are conscious decisions, I also know that I’ve had to completely invent details to fill in the blanks, or invent complete narratives to fill in the stories.

We all do it–writers and non-writers alike. We are all inventors of narrative.

Just listen to two versions of the same break-up.

When memory fails (or even when fact is inconvenient) we re-write life.


The human brain is capable of so much. Our species has invented mathematical and scientific methods for understanding the world. We have invented linguistic systems for explaining our versions of reality to others. When you think about all that our brains are capable of, when you think of the countless facts you’ve memorized, it’s astounding the volumes we could fill with what our brains hold.

But now describe the face of your first grade teacher. Describe the voice of the first person you kissed.

This blog has become my memory sandbox. I like to play with the already-lived reality. Maybe that’s the writer in me.


Is the accuracy of memory something that is important to you?

What role, if any, does memory play in your creative life?


5 thoughts on “Re-Writing Life

  1. Fascinating post, Shane. (Seriously, if I ever have the right free time, I need to go through the whole of VN and read it all!)

    I still can’t listen to “November Rain” by Guns N Roses or “Tainted Love” by Soft Cell without feeling at least a tad bit uncomfortable because of two high school boyfriends.

    I think that we — writers, people, whathaveyou — do *want* to be accurate, but like you said, when that fails, words get pulled from one mouth and put into another.

  2. Is it weird that I clearly remember the face of my first grade teacher? (I’m tempted to chalk it up to the fact that the woman was an evil bitch, but I actually remember the faces of all my teachers.) And come to think of it, I do remember the voice of the first person I kissed. Some of my short stories are inspired by childhood memories. For instance, “The Barn Cat” is about a girl named Molly who gets bitten by a feral cat, and her sadistic older brother torments her with the possibility that she’ll come down with rabies if she doesn’t get all the shots to prevent it. When I was around Molly’s age, I was also bitten by a feral cat, and having OCD, was terrified of contracting rabies. I think I stood at the sink and washed the bite on my hand for 30 minutes. But I didn’t have a sadistic older brother deriving joy from terrifying me. And the story is really about the relationship between Molly and her brother–the cat bite just serves as a way to show how dysfunctional the dynamic between them is.

  3. I distinctly remember the voice of the first boy I kissed, almost twenty years ago. He had a nasally voice, somewhere between the high-pitch of childhood and a deeper, richer tone. His voice, though a bit whiny, wasn’t too unpleasant. The kiss, on the other hand… Well, some things you wish you could forget never quite go away. After reading your article, I wonder how that poor boy remembers me. I don’t know if I was his first kiss, but he was mine. If I was, ah, unimpressed, I’m sure he likely felt the same. Oh well… to be young. 🙂

  4. Pingback: Limits of Language OR Re-Writing Life Redux | Virtual Napkins

  5. Accuracy of memory is very important to me, which is sad because I can’t remember s***. I used to have a mind like a steel trap. I’m striving to get back to that. Strong memory is a razor-sharp knife. It means you can understand more clearly, react more quickly, and it allows you to show more respect to others, by remembering their names and what they say.

    I use feelings more than memory in my writing. I don’t draw from my past much because there are parts of my life I’d rather forget. Some of them are conflicts that other people have written already anyway. I do use memory to collect ideas, to spin them and create something new.

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