Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Writing, Memory and the Facts of the Matter

NOTE: This is also post in another blog, Wagblog, but it has an addendum at the end that the other blog does not. I try to keep the two separate and different but cannot always do so, and I found the discussion of sufficient interest as to want to have it in both places. If you happen to have read this in Wagblog, just skip to the end and read the last few paragraphs, which are set apart by a line.


I am trying to start a new book, another memoir. This is an exciting endeavor but I’ve gotten stuck on the problem, a perennial one I imagine, of how much does one really remember, and how much does the mind “make up," that is, remember improperly? I know that some writers of autobiography -- to my mind a more stringent form, requiring research and some historical context --and memoir make the claim that every word they have written is factually accurate, to the extent that they have checked each one against the memories and records of others. Then there are the infamous ones who have played so fast and loose with the truth as to have lost all semblance of it. These have produced literary scandals (as well as books that probably earned their authors much more income than if they had actually stuck to the facts) and more or less short-lived discourses by the punditry on the nature of truth and memory: what can we really know? Since I am something of a sucker I tend to take both of these at their words, when in fact I daresay that neither of them ought to be. True enough, the one has done more work than the other, and has made an honest effort to search for the "real facts" in his or her history, but my question is this: Can it be done, one, and two, why should the collective memories of say, ten people chosen by the author (biassed) be more "objectively real" than the simple truth of what the author herself remembers? Yes, you might build up a larger group of pieces-of-the-elephant if you have ten blind people who feel only one part. But unless you have someone who knows how the pieces fit together, you still only have elephant pieces...And so ten pieces are no better than the one in the end.

What I am saying is this: the author, the person who lived the life has to be the one to make sense of it. She might have a thousand "elephant pieces" -- memories given her by ten people, yes, or only her own memories but in the end she must construct what the elephant – her life--looked like out of them. In some sense, there are facts and there are facts, but the work, and the life, and the living is all in the interpretation; always was and always will be.

That said, I am having trouble getting started, because I don't know whether I want to use more "objective" sources or evidence this time, or not. I am perfectly comfortable using what is close at hand: my journals, my photos, the people I can easily consult. And I do feel very uncomfortable with mining deeper records: I do not particularly want to see what is written on my hospital charts during months-long stays when I was ranting and screaming for days, or engaging in outrageous behaviors like taking a dump on the floor of the seclusion room, or disrobing and...I can scarcely bear to think I did such things, frankly, and do not want to read what was written about me at the time, knowing nothing can be corrected or updated to show them the "new me". A sad fact about hospital records and workers: they only see you when you are at your worst; they rarely get to know if you get better. Much less get to know you when you are well. And if you ever wanted to sit down and tell them what was actually going through your brain at the time they believed XYZ, but in fact QRS was happening, well, forget it.

So, I am loathe to overturn those stones, growing mossy as they nearly are now, some four years later. It pains me even to bring my mind across the memories of them. I have no wish to flagellate myself. My own journals say little, but it's about all that I want to know. At the same time, my own brow-beating conscience tells me, NO, you must do what you do not want to do. The very fact that you do not want to do it means that you should. No pain, no gain—

Oh, I just go on and on. I would make this next book a torture to me, nothing of pleasure at all, just to serve my scruples. Be gone! If the writing is only to torture me, why do it? I'd be better off with my artwork and sculpture. But writing nurtures me, so long as I do not let my illness turn it into a punishment. Is there any need for me to use the historical records in telling the tale of my life? Did my first book lose anything in my not doing so? I would change a lot in DIVIDED MINDS, if I could go back and do so -- add scenes here, take out one or two, most certainly make better transitions -- but except for appending a much clearer discussion of this very issue, and also a better disclaimer, I wouldn't change the way we wrote it.

So I might have talked myself to a place from which I can start, allowing myself the freedom not to have to delve into the official records or consult professionals involved in my care unless I am currently in treatment with them.

Your past after all resides as much in what you remember as it does in anything documented. You are mostly what you remember, and what you remember is sculpted by time and changes over time. If you think your memories remain the same, read back in a diary you haven’t read before, and recover the accounting of a incident you thought you’d recalled with accuracy...You’ll see how inaccurate your “memory” was and how formative this memory had been nevertheless. Then remember that the accounting is itself a memory, tainted by emotion and interpretation and consider those “ten people with their elephant pieces” who tried to give you objective memories of your history. Were they truly objective? Were their memories, even collectively, any more factual and objective than your memories?

In the end, memory is fiction, as someone once wrote in The New Yorker magazine, memory is, well, made up, not real, imagined. I agree, but it is all we have. Literally. Without memory we would be without anything at all, no culture, no civilization, no nuthin’. So let’s not pretend that the fact that memory is fiction isn’t critical. We need memory, and memory is, well, fundamentally untrustworthy, which is why we need thinking, and thinkers and writers to interpret history and memory... Memory is the most important thing we have, the most important attribute we can impart to anything: in almost every sense of the word, when we remember something we keep it alive. Maybe not literally, but then again, it is memory that keeps a conversation going on longer than five minutes. If you forgot what you were talking about ten minutes ago, or to whom you were speaking, nothing much would get said...


Here is what someone said to me about the above:

> Memory is a tricky subject, a tricky entity. For you, I guess it all depends
> on what incidents you want to concentrate on in your memoir. I don't think
> you need to be slavishly dedicated to finding all the facts, just the ones
> that relate to your particular tale. I think using your journals and blogs
> and listening to those people who are close to you is the right start.
> But what is it you want to emphasize in your memoir? Poking into some of
> those unpleasant memories might furnish the right contrast to your ultimate
> success in becoming a published writer and artist. But only up to a point,
> after all you only need a few examples. The bulk need not be so unpleasant.
> Memory. I've lost a lot of my memories, but I still have the feeling that
> some of them are accessible if I could just be patient enough. I, too, have
> thought that it is not possible to recreate a life on paper unless you take a
> creative license. The main thing is that you are striving to be honest in
> your work.


And here is my response to what she wrote to me:

Interesting thoughts. The problems with "finding all the facts" is the question of where and how and who is going to have them? I mean, I could go, for example, to the records of the psychiatric institute where I was once hospitalized after a catatonic episode triggered by an adverse reaction to risperidone. In the ED they dismissed it as "playing possum" once they determined it was catatonia and not a "pontine stroke" and sent me to the psych hospital. There they took me off all meds, and watched me go into a kind of withdrawal, since I'd been abruptly hauled off of two anticonvulsants and a beta blocker as well as 2 antipsychotics and an antidepressant. Within 3 days I was ready to go into seizures and could have had a cardiac arrhythmia or worse, and was literally trembling and sweating with fear and panic, all because they refused to give me my usual medications. On top of this, they claimed my bloodwork said I was positive for "cannabis and benzodiazapines." Now obviously they had mixed me up with someone else and I tried to tell them this, but they didn't believe me and told me there was no way I could have the "mistake" expunged from my record.

The next day, the doctor told me I had assaulted him, to my face accused me, or rather bald-faced lied by saying so, since it simply never happened. I had been there and was conscious. He said that at lunch I had assaulted him with my lunch tray...which was complete and utter hooey...I had not done any such thing, had not even threatened him, not even verbally, not even spoken a threat...He was simply planting seeds to keep me there...

Now then, if I went back to this unit to find "facts" in the record, what would I find there? Facts? Truth? Hardly...I would find, what? An account of some sort, yes, and maybe some of it might be what one nurse or some other believed was going on. It turned out some believed that I had come in high on grass and benzos. But was it true, was it a fact? No. I would not discover anything in the chart, then, that would teach me something I should know about me I didn't know, that is, no facts, only misstatements and even lies...Which might in fact be interesting but NOT factual. And I might learn some opinions about my behavior, some opinions, which is what nursing notes are, about how it appeared I was feeling or what I said. But not much more besides my BP and temps and maybe a few other "objective" stats, though those were few and far between. Some of those were mistaken as well, since one male nurse decided to lie about my weight and what I ate ("for my sake") so I wouldn't be made to gain any weight. He liked me thin, he said...CRAZY, right? But this was all true, and factual though not what was written down in the chart.

Too bad I didn't take more careful notes during this one hospitalization (I usually am never without a pen and notebook) or if I did, I have not found them. But I do recall this clearly, because it so incensed me it was "flashbulbed" into my memory...Because I was so incredibly upset and distressed by everything that happened during my relatively brief stay and so distraught half the time, I think most of it was simply etched into my brain, unlike many bad times, which have been erased like blood washed off painted walls.

Anyhow, I didn’t mean to go on and on about this. Fact is, I have plenty of unpleasant memories to offset the good ones, believe me. And I am honest enough and a good enough writer to want to write about them! (Also, I know how to maintain tension and you don't do it by writing only about positive or happy events, as my first book ably demonstrated...)

As for creative license, I dunno...I only wrote what I remembered, as I remembered it, in my first book. In other words, I did not invent anything, except inso far as I was forced by the publisher to amalgamate elements of one doctor into another. But the incidents were as I recalled them, even if the physical attributes of the doctors might have changed. But frankly the resident doctors were a dime a dozen, there were so many. And the faces were interchangeable anyway. I just remember that the doctor stood there, and that he did such and such. Only a few docs that I worked with for a longer span of time really became individual. But the residents that I only saw for a month or two inside the hospital, those I do not recall. Nevertheless, I do not use “creative license” in the sense of inventing memories or fictionalizing. Memory may be fiction, but that doesn't mean that writing your memories, writing memoir, means that you simply make them up! Perhaps you misunderstood that discussion -- memory is fiction merely implies that one's memories are malleable, fluid, and that they do not correspond to anyone else's. That the truth is determined by one's memories of the so-called facts, which themselves are nowhere to be found, not even in the equally nowhere to be found "historical record" (which is about as reliable as my hospital chart!)

Dialogue is by necessity imprecise. I don't believe anyone reconstructs conversations accurately. But I know what I think people said or what I remember they said. If I also know how faulty that recall is, I also don’t consciously invent memories of it or even parts of memories. I am simply aware how differently others might recall the very same situation. In short, truth, that is, the facts are not absolute: no matter how certain you are that something happened as you saw it, you can be sure that there is someone who saw it happen precisely the opposite way and holds that view with equal certainty.

Enough...I am certain you did not expect or need this much of a disquisition on the subject. I thank you, however, for triggering some additional thinking on the matter.

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