Work with what you've got

“I’d like to write my memoirs, too,” an old friend told me. “Trouble is, I don’t remember anything!”

He was exaggerating, of course. Still, I could relate. When I started writing this memoir of my childhood, I was trying to remember things that had happened 40-50 years before. I had my stories—the ones I’d told over and over, to friends, lovers, therapists. And I had all the background tissue connecting them, or so I thought. The background to each story had been rich and detailed when I first began telling it, but background is all it was. Unrehearsed, it faded.

When I first took stock, I was horrified at how much I didn’t remember. It took two or three conversations with my brother, comparing notes, just to get all my summers in order. Whole chunks of my life were missing. I was appalled.

I knew I didn’t want to make anything up. The truth is incredible enough. So I had to work with what I had, and I had only my stories.

Why these stories—these, and no others? That turned out to be the revelatory question. For each story, I asked myself, why do I remember this?

You remember your life in two ways. You know certain facts, like: I went to Reed College, I majored in Psychology. And you recall episodes, like the time the professor, lecturing on behavior modification as a way to break habits, admitted the technique had limits. “One day I might burst into the lecture hall crying, ‘I gave up sex!’,” he told us, “but then, I’d probably be waving my penis over my head.” That was memorable.

Episodes are composed of snippets of your sensory inputs for some seconds, like short video clips (with frequent extras like touch, smell, and taste). Why did your mind record these seconds? And preserve the recording, and keep it indexed? Why keep this, when it has discarded so much?

Because you were feeling an intense emotion. What was it? And, why?

Answer these questions, and you can write the episode you remember. Understand what you were feeling, and why, and you’ll understand what the memory means to you. You’ll see how it fits into the larger story of your life; thus, you’ll be able to place it properly in your tale, including or omitting the right details. Knowing why you remember the day was sunny—the shirt, yellow—you can give the image its proper weight.