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Is Memory Your Enemy?

Is Memory Your Enemy?

I remember thinking, at some point, that I couldn't be a good writer because I don't have a good memory. My Aunt Betty used to say, when my family members were remembering a past event fondly, "Just tell me one thing. Did I have a good time?" But the truth I've learned is that memory can get in the way. If we're too literal about the way things were, we'll never find out how they might have been.

Most of us have had the experience of writing something exactly as it happened, only to have an agent or editor tell us it's not "realistic." But it actually happened, we protest -- pretty much exactly that way. John Gardner in THE ART OF FICTION says, "The fact that the story is true, of course, does not relieve the novelist of the responsibility of making the characters and events convincing."

If you're looking for a good writing exercise, try your hand at making a true story "truer" this week. Use one that's been in the family for years, but force yourself to take shocking liberties in the retelling. Change some of the details, add a few new sensory descriptions you might have noticed if you'd been there, make the dialogue a little more compelling by adding a comment or two. You might even add a character you've invented.

Can you place your reader there by fictionalizing the event - just a bit? Sometimes a good story is too dependent on the hearers' -- or readers' -- familiarity with the personalities involved. See if you can distance yourself from a story you've heard retold again and again and see it in a new light. You might just like your "poetic license" version even better. If you're a beginning writer, it's a great way to ease into fiction writing. If you're a novelist, it might become a scene in your next book. Either way, don't let memory become your master!

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Posted in February, 2012