I never know quite how to answer. My topics to date have been rather dark: abuse, suicide, alcoholism, mental illness. When looked at in this obvious way, my immediate answer would be “none of it.” But if I really consider each book, I have to admit that some very obvious subplots and descriptions of place have come from my experiences and therefore from my memory.
I don’t think anyone who writes will find this surprising. We often draw from memory even when we have no idea that we’re doing it. But what if memory is flawed?
I firmly believe that two people who experience the same event seldom remember it in the same way. My first book was loosely based on this idea. I find this fascinating but not all that surprising. When emotions are involved (and aren’t they always?), memories can be severely altered. But last weekend, I realized just how creative everyday memory can be.
My husband and I were walking downtown, enjoying the first glimpses of fall, when I noticed some horse chestnuts that had fallen from a tree. I picked one of them up, and it triggered a memory of collecting them from the schoolyard when I was in fourth grade and taking them home to my mother to roast. I could remember the feeling of the smooth chestnuts in my hand. I remembered putting them first in my pockets and later in my lunchbox. I also recall their smoky smell as my mother roasted them, and I remember thinking that the holidays would be coming soon.
This memory filled me with a warm feeling of home. It was so vivid and easy to recall that I actually believed it was true. It wasn’t. My first hint that something wasn’t right was in the name of the tree. It wasn’t a chestnut tree. It was a horse chestnut. Unless you are a deer, horse chestnuts are poisonous. My mother never would have roasted and fed them to us. At least I hope she wouldn’t have.
The memory correction jarred me. How could I have been wrong about this for all these years? I know that I collected the chestnuts. I remember separating them from their jackets. I can still smell them roasting.
Then I realized that I had another memory of chestnuts. It was soon after I moved to Manhattan, and, during the holidays, the street vendors were doing the roasting. The smell was wonderful. It made me look forward to Christmas and home.
As soon as that memory was corrected, the real one came into focus. I’d collected the horse chestnuts all right, a lot of them, but I never took them home. Instead, I divided them among my friends. Remembering what we actually did with them shocked me. We hurled them at each other as if they were rocks, or snowballs.
As the memories came back to me, I started to think about story. How would I approach this if I were trying to write it? What are the differences between a story that is saved in your memory and a story that you create on the page?
These days, I probably wouldn’t write a story about my mother roasting Christmas chestnuts. It may seem lovely to me, but it’s too sentimental and a bit of cliché. Though I enjoyed the false memory for years, it’s not a story that I can write. But running through the streets of my hometown after school, grabbing and flinging chestnuts as fast as I can, now that intrigues me. For little ladies who wore dresses to school and weren’t allowed to throw rocks, we were rather aggressive. Did we really throw them at each other? Did anyone get hurt?
So now my writer’s brain is taking over. What about a fourth grade girl who is not allowed to throw rocks but who lobs chestnuts? What does this say about her? Who was her intended target? Is she a tomboy? Is she a bully? Is she the victim of a bully? My creative mind is reeling with the possibilities.
I’ve come to the conclusion that the difference between a story we create in memory and one we create on the page lies in the questions that we ask ourselves as writers. Outside of a therapy session, we don’t often ask the same questions of our memories. We don’t challenge them. We simply play them back over and over. In the writer’s world, we pull and stretch and distort an idea until we’ve examined all of its possibilities and potential meanings.
I jotted down my memory story for future use, the real one not the fake. I expect it will show up in a book one of these days, not as me, not as anyone I know, but in some character I’ll create along the way.
So the next time a reader asks me how much of my own life and memory is in my work, I will answer “quite a bit.” Not in the way one might expect it and certainly not in the way I once believed, but it’s there, if one looks carefully. It’s making art out of found objects: the elements may be familiar, but what they become is something else entirely.
How much of your writing comes from real life or from your memories of what is real?