On the Difference Between Remembering and Creating
originally published online at Mothers Always Write
It may be stating the obvious, but when you write memoir, you become a slave to your recollections. The story you’re telling isn’t necessarily “true” in any empirical sense. It’s true only in that it’s how you remember what you and others did or said at some specific moment in time. And it’s likely only part of a larger narrative – the part with which you happen to be familiar. Although you are free to interpret the actions or the emotions of the players, you don’t, when writing memoir, fundamentally change their behavior or how they expressed themselves. When you inevitably ask yourself — “wouldn’t it be so much more dramatic if, instead of opening the letter at that moment, alone in the room, he hesitated and opened it in front of his wife?“ — the answer may be an emphatic “yes, it would be more exciting or consequential.” But that isn’t the way it happened, and you can’t write it that way.
I have felt the limitation and the frustration of memoir in the short pieces I have written about critical moments in my own life, restrained by the need to be faithful to my memory and unwilling, on principle, to improve upon what actually happened. Although there are many features of memoir writing that can be painful, there is one aspect that can render the process impossible – the deficiencies of memory. There are times when I am not certain what my own subjective truth is. I cannot remember clearly some core facet of the story – that truth that forms the basis of the piece before my thoughts and perceptions are layered on top.
Not long ago, I wrote an essay about a loss I experienced when I was 17 years old. One beautiful May evening in the early 1980s, Ed, the 35 year-old director of the youth center where I and my friends spent most of our free time throughout our high school years, died of a massive heart attack, practically before our eyes. It was a defining moment of our teenage years, but I had not written much about that day, with the exception of a letter, about twenty years afterwards, to Ed’s daughter, who was two at the time of his death. I believed that the events were seared into my memory, starting with the picnic in a local park where we had hung out in the afternoon, through the theater performance at the youth center that night when there had suddenly been a call for CPR, and the terrible hours that followed.
In the essay, I described how that night had ended. I had been waiting outside the youth center for my friend D, who had been one of two young men to answer the call to administer CPR and who had gone with Ed to the hospital. When, after what seemed like a very long time, he didn’t return, I went home. It was late at night. I learned the next morning in a telephone call at my parents’ house that Ed had died.
I sent the essay to another one of my friends with whom I had spent much of that day and night so many years ago. I wasn’t asking J to verify my memories; I was absolutely confident of my recollections. I wanted to share with her my perceptions, to remind her how much a part of that experience she had been for me, even though we are no longer in close touch. I had not expected what would follow. Although she remembered the sequence of events in much the same way I did and recalled me being central to how the tragedy unfolded for her as well, she had a different memory of how the night had ended. “I waited for D,” she told me. “I saw him come back. And I learned what had happened to Ed.” And suddenly, I was there too, with J, waiting for my friend to return from his journey – could I really have left without seeing him, without knowing something of what he had been through and making sure he would get safely home? With J’s input, I could see D’s eyes and the terror of what he had witnessed. I felt, with a certainty, D’s utter silence as he passed me and went inside the center, unable to even acknowledge my presence.
And now, I’m no longer certain of the truth of those final moments that evening in 1983. I can see every detail as J described it, but is that only because I knew D so well? Or was I actually there? Did I really get the terrible news of Ed’s death that night, standing outside with my teenage friends? Or did I learn what had happened later, securely at home and after a night’s sleep, with my parents there to hold me up? My memory has been called into question, and it is unsettling. Could I claim in my essay to be there when D returned, even if I don’t know if that is true? It would be the better ending, the one I would like to think is true because it speaks well of me as the friend I know I was. And who would be the wiser if I changed the ending? Only J, who read the original version – she doesn’t claim to recall whether I was there or not. But I cannot fool myself. To write memoir with conviction, you must at least be certain of your own truth.
Fiction doesn’t care what I remember, and, in that sense, the writing is intensely cathartic. I decide what makes my characters noble and appealing, what makes the story whole and satisfying, without the tether of my memory. But it isn’t that simple, because, at least as a novice, a significant part of what I invent is based on people and places and events that I know from my life. Perhaps one day when I have gained confidence and when I can free myself from the ties of my own experiences, I will write more directly from my imagination. But for now, my fiction is built on inspiration and liberation – I am inspired by what I have actually lived, but I am liberated from the requirement to be accurate. I no longer need to match the story to what happened.
Nonetheless, the transition to fiction involves a different set of unexpected challenges. When you write fiction, you create. But it’s more profound than that. You are “the Creator.” As a religious person, I don’t say that blasphemously or frivolously. In the small world that is your story, you are omniscient and omnipotent. No longer wed to the truth, you decide what people say, how they act, the consequences of their behavior. Ultimately, you have the power over life and death. While it isn’t “real,” it isn’t not real either. It is something in-between. It can be wonderfully empowering and terribly frightening.
The creation starts with the small things, and, at least for me, it is subconscious at first. You name your characters, and you find, surprising yourself, that one woman has the name of a doctor who once helped you when you were sick, and one man has the name of a teacher who encouraged you. Someone else has the name of the first boy you kissed at summer camp when you were fifteen. The protagonist has your daughter’s blond curls, and her parents occasionally use expressions you heard when you were a child. The kitchen table in my novel is unabashedly the kitchen table of my youth, with all the emotions of my teenage years and hours spent with family and friends etched into its wood veneer surface.
When you realize your power is infinite, the temptation is almost unbearable to make everything turn out better – happy endings for every person you have loved who makes a cameo, however disguised, in your story. But you have to resist, unless you are writing a fairy tale or fantasy. You are no longer writing the truth, per se, but if you write a story populated only by characters who are intelligent and beautiful and sensitive and thoughtful and always do the right thing, your fiction will not pass the test of plausibility.
And as much as you fall in love with your characters and wish everyone in your novel could live forever, the pull of that desire for immortality must also be resisted. Perhaps if your characters have no resemblance to anyone from your own life, this is easier. But when a character is inspired by a real person you care about, the impulse to rewrite the ultimate ending is intense. I indulged in some better outcomes and refrained on others, dictated by the requirements of the story but undoubtedly influenced by my needs as well. So while I pushed myself to let a character inspired by a friend succumb to her illness, as she did in real life, I allowed myself to save my rabbi, permitting the character he engendered to go on living and spreading words of Torah rather than perishing in a fire as he did in reality.
What lessons have I learned from writing memoir and fiction? That each, in its own way, dares the writer to confront her own truth, factual or imagined, and to determine how best to convey it to the reader. Memoir demands recollection and an honest reckoning, no matter how subjective; fiction demands a wise use of the creative power that both serves the invented world and pays homage to the real world. Each form of expression has its unique purpose and methodology – the writer’s task is to honor the possibilities of beauty that inhere in both.
Reyna Marder Gentin graduated from Yale College and Yale Law School. She practiced as a criminal appellate attorney with a public defender’s office for nearly eighteen years. After leaving the practice of law, Reyna has had the good fortune of being able to devote substantial time to writing and taking classes at the Writing Institute of Sarah Lawrence College. Reyna has published personal essays on many websites, and her short story, “A Reckoning,” appears in the 2017 issue of the Westchester Review. Reyna’s legal career inspired her to write Unreasonable Doubts, her first novel, which will be published by She Writes Press in the fall of 2018. It is the story of Liana Cohen, a young woman grappling with what it means to maintain her idealism in an often harsh world, while she learns to find friendship, faith, and love in the right places.