would tell the story and ask, "Do you remember that?"
remember," Id tell her. Memory was a thing of moments for my mother near the
end of her life. It was good to be able to share them.
however, I told her a lie. I didnt then and dont now remember saying those
words. I dont remember what kind of bird it was, or what the cat looked like, or the
doorstep. I have only the vaguest image of the entryway, a shadowy recollection of my
mothers appearance at that time in our lives. I assured her that I remembered the
experience; in truth, I remembered her telling the story about me over the years. I
remembered being remembered. The original event is almost entirely gone from me. The story
has replaced the event. The story has become the truth, insofar as anyone in the world
knows the truth.
her life, I think my mother used to tell the story in greater detail. There was more about
the poor bird, more about my manner and admonishing tone. Did she tell it exactly as it
happened? I doubt it. Surely she elaborated, at least slightly. Surely she shaped up my
pronouncement, editing for effect, when recounting the incident to family and friends. It
was a good little story, and few can resist the impulse to make a good story better.
none of us can resist, because memory itself alters and elaborates. Theres an image
Ive had drifting around the threshold of awareness my entire conscious life, a
memory that became very important to me in my mid-forties when I set out to write a memoir
about my mother and my own childhood and early adulthood (Looking After: A Sons
Memoir, published in 1996 by Counterpoint). The remembered event may have occurred
when I was two years old. The sense of it is vague, but I believe it occurred in my
mothers arms. I seem to remember the warmth and gentle pressure of arms and breast.
And I seem to recall a voice speaking to me, drawing me out into the world. The words are
indistinct, but I hear the murmuring of the voice like a stream moving over stones, the
words all dissolved in the lilt and whisper of their flow. Maybe it was her heart and
blood I was hearing, maybe it wasnt language at all.
its the stars I remember best, or think I remember. Its the stars that I think
of as my first seeing. Maybe my mother was talking about them, crooning about them. I saw
a scatter of light above me, and it was in seeing that scatter of light that I first
distinguished a world separate from me and a me separate from the world. I think of it as
my second birth, as profound as my firstmore profound, in a way, because it was the
birth of consciousness, of the point of view I would come to know as myself, more me
than arms or legs.
other details of that moment that I want to say I remember: that the night air was warm
and soft on my face, that the stars looked cold somehow, that crickets were sounding, that
a dog barked. But how could I at two years old have been aware of anything I could
identify and remember as the sound of crickets? A barking dog maybe, since we had a dog,
but crickets? And what did I know of the sensation of cold that I could extend it to the
stars? Surely my imagination has invented those details, remembering them into the
recollection of voice and scattered light in order to render the scene more complete.
Im a writer, after all, and I have a writers instinct for artifice. I want to
make the scene immediate for the reader, and that artifice of reaching into language is
only an extension of a deeper, pre-verbal artifice. Something in my psyche wants to make
the scene immediate for me, the me who distantly remembers it. Memory itself is a
fabricator, a spinner of yarns, a poet and a liar.
exercised memory in writing my book I became very interested in how it functions, and I
did some research. Scientists for decades have been trying to discover the sites in the
brain where memories are stored. Now they seem to have found the answer. There are
structures and regions of the brain that are critical in various ways to the functioning
of memory, but there seem to be no storage sites per se. When we remember an experience,
the brain does not retrieve a record of it as a computer retrieves information stored in
its memory banks. There is no record. The brain somehow recreates the experience,
conjuring the image out of vast, labyrinthine loopings of neurons firing in a pattern
similar to the one evoked by the original experience.
recreation is not a photocopy. According to neurobiologist Gerald Edelman, there are ten
billion neurons in the human cerebral cortex, and more potential connections between those
neurons than there are subatomic particles in the entire estimated physical universe. It
is a system of near-infinite complexity, a system that seems designed for revision as much
as for replication, and revision unquestionably occurs. Details from separate experiences
weave together, so that the rememberer thinks of them as having happened together. The
actual year or season or time of day shifts to a different one. Many details are lost,
usually in ways that serve the self in its present situation, not the self of ten or
twenty or forty years ago when the remembered event took place. And even the fresh memory,
the "original," is not reliable in a documentary sense. It happens all the time
that two trustworthy eyewitnesses to a recent incident give widely divergent accounts. We
remember not the story of what happened but always a story, a version, an account
that fits our present understanding of the world and helps us get on with our lives. That
story is subject to unconscious revision over time. The latest draft becomes for us the
story, the clear and certain memory we would swear to.
short, is not a record of the past but an evolving myth of understanding the psyche spins
from its engagement with the world. I mean "myth" in two opposed sensesa
story so true you live your life by it, and an untruth taken as fact. Subjects in
psychological tests can easily be induced to remember things that didnt happen. When
a subject is asked, after watching a film of an accident, "How fast do you think the
cars were going when they smashed into each other?," he is likely to remember having
seen broken glass in the film. If asked a question less suggestive of high-speed impact,
he is unlikely to remember broken glass. There is none in the film. In another experiment,
kids and adults too can be prompted to remember having once been lost in a mall and very
frightened about it. Memory is capable not only of revision but also of outright
events as well as trivial ones can be invented. Someone who recalls being sexually abused
as a child may remember and recount the violation in vivid detail. The violation may or
may not have occurred. Without a confession or a witness, there is often no way to
determine the truth. Hypnotizing the accuser not only doesnt help, it increases the
likelihood of false memory. Hypnotized subjects remember with greater confidence and in
greater detail, but there are more errors in what they remember. The hypnotized mind is an
even better fabricator than the mind in its ordinary state, and the hypnotized subject is
extremely suggestible to intended or unintended cues from the questioner. Its for
this reason that hypnotically "refreshed" testimony, common in the 1970s, is now
disallowed in many courtrooms.
which makes me glad Im not a participant in one of those painful wars of memory, but
only a writer. Yet the stakes are high for a writer, too, especially for a writer of
personal narrative. My memories live at the center of my being. My memories are me, and if
I cant know them to be true, how can I know who I am? How, I had to ask myself,
could I write a memoir if I couldnt trust memory?
realizations helped me proceed. First, I saw that I owed it to my readers to incorporate
my understandings and beliefs about memory into the book as a kind of truth-in-advertising
disclosure. This I did as an intermittent commentary woven throughout. Second, and more
crucially, the experience of writing sustained personal narrative for the first time led
me to value the truth of memory as story a little higher than the truth of memory as
psychologist Jean Piaget once told an interviewer about one of his first conscious
experiences. He remembered being pushed in a perambulator by his nanny when she was
attacked by a man who wanted her purse. Throughout his youth Piaget recalled the
attackers bearded face, the nanny screaming and scratching his arm, the flash of sun
on her parasol as she beat him with it, and other tightly-focused details. Later in life,
as a young adult, he discovered that the incident he remembered so vividly had never
happened. The nanny had been unaccountably late getting the little boy home and had
concocted the tale of the attacker to satisfy his parents. Evidently she was a good
storyteller, and little Piaget soaked it up. Retellings by his parents no doubt further
strengthened the details in his memory. His nannys false alibi became absolute truth
nanny and parents had filed a complaint about the "incident," and if a bearded
man had been charged with the attack, Piagets memory might have abetted his
nannys confabulation in perpetrating an injustice. But the needs of art are not the
same as the needs of law. If Piaget had never discovered the falsehood of his memory, and
if in his forties he had undertaken a memoir of his childhood, that "experience"
might have proven very valuable. It might have constellated with other memories in ways
that helped him understand his fears, his sense of gender roles and relations, his
attitudes toward violence. False in a historical sense, the story might have contributed
to the truth of a larger story by which to understand his life.
Thats the way it may have worked with my own less dramatic memory. I may never have
seen the stars from my mothers arms. I may have been in the arms of the woman who
helped with housekeeping when my brother and I were small. I may have seen not stars but
fireflies, which I also remember from an early age. Or the image may have come from a
story, a song, from who knows what or where. But what I have, regardless of its origin or
veracity, is the image. I looked up from my mothers arms and saw the stars in the
black night sky. Ive carried that glimpse for most of fifty years, and there are
others. The stars were on my mind as a young boy.
When I was
five or so, my mother was trying to explain the West Coast to me, a place called Oregon. I
got it that the land went on from where we lived and ended far away in Oregon, but for
some reason I didnt see an ocean. I saw mountains, a last solid shore, and then the
void of starry space. There was also a recurrent dream I had at that age and older, a
nightmare that made me cry out until my mother came to turn on the light and comfort me.
There was no story, just an image. I felt myself floating among icy stars, a dead and
disembodied soul lost forever from my life.
have an acute fear of death, and Ive sometimes thought that the glittering sky I saw
from my mothers arms somehow branded that fear into me, but it makes no sense. Why
would that moment have been fearful? What was death to the I who had just been born
beneath those stars? My fear must have come later, from a source still withheld by memory,
something that turned the stars into cold emblems of extinction.
responds to attentionawakened images wake others. One of the houses we lived in back
then was a few blocks from the firehouse in Glen Echo, Maryland. The siren was loud, an
implacable shriek, and when it went up and leveled off at its highest pitch I would stop
everything and wait for it to go back down, because that would mean only a fire. If it
didnt go down it meant something else. It meant that Russian missiles were on the
way and nothing could stop them, that in a few minutes, along with Congress and the
President and my family and friends, I would burn instantly to nothing in a blinding
flash. Id be standing there in my room, then gone. When the siren stayed too many
seconds at its top screaming pitch I closed my eyes and willed it to go down, then
pleaded, hitting my fists against my thighs.
dark. Here, gone. Is that what gave me the nightmare? Is that what made me see an ultimate
brink at the end of America? I dont know, and I dont know if I can know. But I
am sure of one thing: the starry dark is a deep and primary image for me, a riddle of my
being. And so it makes sense that memory should work and worry it, tease it into further
images, shape scenes and stories from it, and it makes sense that I should help memory
along. The starry dark is integral to the myth of identity that memory weaves within me,
and even though memory is a known liar, I dont believe its out to trick me or
lead me astray. Its my faith that the myth of memory tends toward the truths that I
most need to know.
And so I
wrote a memoir. I tried to remember the boy and young man I had been. I tried to
understand how we got split up and how we might get back together. I tried to remember as
completely as I could my mother and what she meant to me, in life and in death. I started
with what I recalled and wrote my way into what I didnt recall. I wrote about real
people, real events, but I put into mouthsmy wifes, my mothers, my
ownsome words that almost certainly never were said. I added to remembered events
people and things that may not have been part of them. I added crickets and barking dogs.
yet I insist Ive told the truth in my book. Truth means conformity to fact, but it
also means fidelity, or faithfulness. As a writer of personal narrative I owe fidelity to
facts. I gather all I can find, rubbing each for its full gleam and color. Each is an
element of the story I need to tell. But I also owe fidelity to that story in its
potential wholeness, the wholeness of which clearly remembered events form only a part. I
owe fidelity to what memory cant provide, and how can I possible exercise that faith
except by following, in the spirit of truth, the stuttering, devious pencil I hold
in my hand?
doesnt mean, of course, that what the pencil writes isnt subject to revision.
When the scent is fresh its important to follow uncritically, with enthusiasm, but
its just as important, when the trail has cooled, to examine it dispassionately and
note carefully those regions it has visited and those it has not. The nature writer John
Burroughs once wrote about his work, "It was not till I got home that I really went
to Maine, or the Adirondacks, or to Canada. Out of the chaotic and nebulous impressions
which these expeditions gave me, I evolved the real experience." Evolved it, that is,
by writing it. Its the writers plight and his power that the real experience
of the birch forest in Maine occurs not as he is walking through it, but back home in his
study as he writes it. There, Burroughs says, he "compels that vague unconscious
being within me, who absorbs so much and says so little, to unbosom himself at the point
of a pen."
means that last phrase as a joke, its a serious joke. The process does involve
compulsion, and the compulsion must be thorough. As I wrote my book there were parts of
the story I wanted to leave to my vague unconscious being because they didnt show me
as I like to be seen. I was far from a perfect care giver for my mother in her last years.
I hurried her when she couldnt hurry, I was impatient with her memory lapses, I cut
off conversations, I spent too much of our time together in an irritable funk. There were
moments when I wished she would just go ahead and die. The point of the pen must demand an
account of those moments too. It must require the fullest truth memory can
providememory the self-serving, memory the liar. If the memoirists task is to
bring into being a myth of identity, he must also carry out an honest interrogation of
recognize, too, that there are certain absences of memory the pen must not fill. In my
book I recall a scene from my eighth or ninth year when my mother said something very
hurtful to me. I remember in clear detail the look on her face, her posture and clothing,
the objects in my bedroom where we stood, and I remembercan still feelthe
crumpling pain her words gave me, how it contracted my whole being. But I absolutely do
not remember what she said, and in this instance, because the experience was and remains
so charged, I did not feel I could put words in her mouth. If I had remembered the gist of
her remark I would have imagined language for that gist, but the memory blockage was too
complete. The spirit of truth had too little to work with.
question of how much and what kind of fabrication is permissible depends considerably on
the kind of writing one is doing. Some years ago I wrote an essay about the clearcutting
of old-growth forest, drawing on my experience as a back packer, an environmentalist, and
a logger. The first nine sections make clear that on ecological and aesthetic grounds
Im against clearcutting as its been practiced in the Northwest, that Im
for a less profligate and more imaginative use of the forest. This is how the tenth and
final section begins:
aint pretty," a man said to me once, "but its the only way to
harvest those trees. It dont pay to go in there just for a few."
standing in the rainy morning outside the Weyerhaeuser time shack. His tin hat battered by
years in the woods, a lunch pail and steel thermos of coffee in his hands, he spoke those
words with a certainty I remember clearlyjust as I remember what a good man he was,
how he cussed beautifully and told fine stories and was friendly to a green choker-setter,
how he worked with an impossible appetite that left me panting and cussing unbeautifully
behind him. I dont remember what I or someone said that drew his response, or
whether he was answering some doubt he himself had raised. I only recall the authority of
his voice, the rain dripping from his tin hat, and the idling crummies waiting to carry us
out the muddy roads from camp, out through the stripped hills to another day of work.
that spoke those words is my voice too. Its in all of usthe voice of
practicality and common sense, the voice that understands that ugly things are necessary.
Its a voice that values working hard to produce goods that all of us use. It has
behind it certain assumptions, certain ideas about progress, economy, and standard of
living, and it has behind it the evidence of certain numbers, of payrolls and balance
sheets, of rotation cycles and board footage. It is not an ignorant or heartless voice. It
has love for wife and children in it, a concern for their future. It has love for the work
itself and the way of life that surrounds the work. And it has at least a tinge of regret
for the forest, a sense of beauty and a sorrow at the violation of beauty.
have nodded, those years ago, when a good man spoke those words. I didnt
argueagainst his experience and certainty, I had only a vague uneasiness. Now, I
suppose, I would argue, but I know that arguing wouldnt change his mind. As he
defined the issue, he saw it truly. Many of us define the issue differently now, and we
think we see it truly, and all of us on every side have studies and numbers and ideas to
support what we believe. All of us have evidence.
goes on to argue in two further paragraphs that the condition of the land itself is the
most objective and reliable evidence, and that the condition of the land tilts strongly
The man I
briefly picture in this passage is fictitious. I invented him and the words he utters
because I wanted to suggest to my urban environmentalist audience that economy must be
considered alongside ecology in the timber debate; that nothing is helped by blaming or
condescending to those who work, or worked, in the woods for a living; that we who use the
materials they produce are trapped with them in a polarized discourse, implicated,
together with the land itself, in a tragedy. And so, drawing on the very real qualities of
the men I worked with and the remarks of several of them, I fabricated a man, stood him in
the morning rain, put language in his mouth, and analyzed his apocryphal comment for signs
of his mind and heart. I did it in search of a wholer truth than I had been hearing in the
public debate. It felt true to me as I wrote it, and it feels true to me now.
Had I been
writing journalism, I wouldnt have created that man. I expect the journalist, myself
included when I am writing as one, to portray as real only those persons and events he
knows to be real, and to portray them as accurately as possible. But I wasnt writing
journalism. I was attempting a personal essaya piece, I like to think, of literary
artand the essayist must be more than a chronicler of observed events. He must imagine
his experience as thoroughly as he can, and by that I mean not to make unreal but to make
more real. Like other literary artists, the essayist bears true witness by seeking the
truest possible embodiment in images of the experience, whether inner or outer, that has
its permissible for an essayist to invent a character and a conversation,
whats to keep him from inventing an entire narrative? What indeed. One of George
Orwells best essays, "A Hanging," from his years as a British magistrate
in Burma, is a closely described first-person account of helping to escort a condemned man
to his execution. It turns on two seemingly trivial incidents. A dog prances up as the
group approaches the gallows and leaps to lick the condemned mans face. And Orwell,
walking behind, watches the man step deftly aside to avoid a puddle in his path. Those
actions, precisely rendered in plain-style prose, the kind of finely focused language I
urge on all my students, induce in Orwell a flash of clarity in which he sees "the
mystery, the unspeakable wrongness, of cutting a life short when it is in full tide."
should say, they induce that realization in the narrator of the story. According to
Bernard Crick, Orwells biographer and introducer of the Penguin edition of his
essays, it is unlikely that Orwell ever attended a hanging, in Burma or anywhere else.
(For those who know the essays, its unlikely as well that Orwell shot an elephant or
as a boy was caned in front of his schoolmates for bed wetting.) Have we been betrayed?
Sold out by a writer much vaunted for his honesty and integrity? Has he foisted a short
story upon us in the guise of an essay?
He wrote a personal narrative, and maybe the time has come to quit being so fussy about
the line between fictional and nonfictional narrative. Do we require other kinds of
artists to toe that line? Is Van Goghs "Starry Night," for instance, a
work of fiction or of nonfiction? Did he really see the stars that way, or did he make
them up? The question is absurd, as absurd as it would be to ask a sculptor to hang tags
on his work to identify which pieces, or which parts of pieces, are representational and
which are not. The work speaks for itself, and so does Orwells essay. From his
experience in Burma he had something to say about the British Empire and its very real
practice of hanging native offenders, and he used his narrative imagination to make a far
more compelling statement than would have been possible journalistically or in expository
prose. Whether the piece should be classified "essay" or "short story"
is a question of little importance. It is a piece of narrative art that bears authentic
witness on the world as Orwell knew it.
writer I see no organic difference between what I do in memoir and narrative essay and
what a fiction writer does in novel and short story. Both of us are trying to tell a story
we need to tell, using the same technical devices to tell it, and trying to tell it the
truest way we can. I do see a difference in responsibility. The fiction writer, if he
wishes, may limit his imagination only to the demands of his characters and plot, while
the essayist and memoirist must harness his imagination to the spirit, though not the
absolute letter, of objective truth. But both kinds of work flow from the same
storytelling need and desire, the same narrative fountain in the human psyche. As Thomas
Hobbes wrote in Leviathan, "Imagination and memory are but one thing, which
for divers considerations has divers names."
"Fiction" is probably the most appropriate existing term for the artistic
products of the narrative fountain. It derives from the past participle of fingere,
which means to shape or fashion (as well as to feign). All narrative is shaped and
fashioned, both by conscious choice and by unconscious revision. Whether we think of
ourselves as working from imagination or from memory, we are in both cases working with
fabrications of experience, and our original perceptions of experience are themselves
fabrications of the nameless flux in which we and our senses are continuously immersed,
which we conveniently call life and the world. As Oliver Sacks has written, "When we
open our eyes each morning, it is upon a world we have spent a lifetime learning to
see. We are not given the world; we make our world
is one who trains this necessary making into language, and so makes the world again.
Through writing and reading he encourages his fabrications of experience; he conditions
himself to respond in images and metaphors, in complexes of thought and feeling, in
narrative lines. He grows richer with these fabrications as he grows older. When I was
twenty I wanted to be a writer but thought I had nothing to write about. I misunderstood
the problem. I had lots to write aboutall of us do, at any agebut I
didnt yet have the inner means to compose, to re-memberput together
againmy experience. Now, at fifty, I realize I have far more to write about than
Ill ever have time for.
Philosophically its an arguable case that none of the writing we call nonfiction is
actually that. All of it comes of shaping and fashioning, and most of it comes down to one
form or another of narrative. "What is history," said Napoleon, "but a
fable agreed upon?" And what is biography but a storynot the storyof
a life? What is science but a suite of stories we tell about physical being, revising them
under a set of conventions known as the scientific method? Even journalists, though they
must attempt only to mirror events, betray the true nature of their writings when they
refer to them as "stories."
Im content to limit my argument to personal narrative. As I wander the continent of
prose, following such tracks as seem promising, its clear enough that the region of
memoir and narrative essay lies directly adjacent to the region of short story and novel.
They share a similar topography, similar forms of life. They belong to the same natural
province. The wall we have built to partition one from the othereach stone in the
wall a "non" as in "nonfiction"was never well made and never in
fact necessary. Its been crumbling for years, and why should we rebuild it? Let it
fall to ruin, and let us recognize the greater province of personal narrative. Long may it
Theres a story my mother used to tell about me, even occasionally in her last years, when her memory was sliding away from her in a long slow avalanche. Once in the 1950s, when we were living in the semi-rural outskirts of Washington, D.C., our cat brought a maimed bird to the door. My mother scolded the cat and grieved for the bird, the story went, until I came to the door behind her, 6 or 7 years old, and pronounced, "Mother, its a cats nature to hunt birds."