December 10, 2006

Memory and Variation, Honesty and Truth

During a walk along Crescent Beach a few years back, I saw an older woman moving very slowly along the footpath with the help of a care-worker. The woman looked anxious, completely out of her element and this glimpse of frailty sparked a memory of my final hospital visit to my oma (grandmother), before her death. Once I was at my laptop, other memories started to flow in: not being recognized by Oma during the visit, Mom finding her crammed between the toilet and the wall of the tub one morning because of a late-night fall. It got to the point where I constructed an entire story around my visit to the hospital, something that later became a project for class. But the story was not wholly true, even if it did come from my memories. I invented details, added emotions and characteristics that may not have existed during the original experience. Our memories are extraordinary archiving systems, but they are not wholly accurate. A lot of what we archive, and dredge up at different times, is coloured by our viewpoint of the moment. So, as details can be forgotten from memory, they can also be tainted by potentially opposing emotions once the memory is brought out.

What exactly should be credited as the trigger of my story: the memory I had of Oma in her hospital bed or the moment I chanced upon the elderly woman out on her afternoon walk? The answer is both. Would my story still have come out the same way if I had not seen the old woman? Probably not. It may have come up at a later time, sure, but it would have been different. Details, emphasis, all would have been filtered through whatever the other trigger would have been. And herein is the great variable: unreliable memory combined with an unknown amount of potential triggers equals endless story possibilities. Or, at least an endless amount of ways the details of a story can come out.

I try to write what I know. I got this advice from every writing professor I ever had. On the surface it seems like such a simple statement and yet, considering my earlier comments, this is in all likelihood not possible. So, perhaps the statement needs to be modified to I write what seems to be a genuine response to the moment, the trigger, and everything else that comes out while the process unfurls. So writing then becomes more about an honest reaction than an objective, intellectual truth. Especially as it is being put down on the page. And this task is far more difficult than a person may think.

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