Memory: Mind the Gaps

My memory is like Swiss cheese: full of holes. 

I hate Swiss cheese. But that’s neither here nor there. 

I have to write things down in order to remember them, usually in multiple places. I put reminders on my phone. I check my calendar and to-do lists with near-maniacal frequency. I can’t remember names of people I meet.

I remember the way my grandparent’s house smelled: a combination of baked goods and Downy fabric softener. But I don’t remember where they kept the drinking glasses.

I remember focusing intently on the smattering of small holes in the ceiling tiles of my pediatrician’s office as he put stitches in my knee, but I don’t remember getting there. 

I remember the rain on the car window refracting the streetlights as my mother explained why my parents had decided to separate, but I don’t remember the words she used.

There is no way to account for why we remember some things and not others. Which is not helpful to those of us who write true, personal stories for memoir, essay, blog or the stage. 

When we decide to write a story that holds significance for us, we rely on our memories to fill in the details. 

And when our memory fails us, we get stuck. 

I think the key is to accept it. To understand that there really is no way to understand why our brains tuck away certain details and not others. To let that be okay, and keep going with the story. 

But HOW? 

(There is an endless discussion in the world of creative nonfiction about facts vs. creative license, so I’m not going to go into it here. Suffice it to say that – at least in my opinion – there are are many opinions are there are creative nonfiction writers.)

Memory gaps are something we all deal with.  Here are some strategies I use to fill in the blanks when they appear: 

If the gaps are related to the setting, I take a guided visualiation tour through the setting of the story, and note as many details as I can. I notice every sensory detail, even those that seem irrelevant. (If the plates were there, maybe the drinking glasses were above them?)

If the gaps are related to dialogue, I imagine that I’m sitting across from them, listening to them talk. I try to hear the inflections in their voice and words or phrases they often said. I study their facial expressions. (If her voice had this tone when she was stressed in other situations, it is probably the tone she had while she explained the separation.)

If the gaps are related to the events  I consider what was logical. (I sliced my knee open in that house on 105th Ave., and the doctor’s office was by the mall, so we must have driven and since I was a kid I probably rode in the back seat.)

Here is the most important thing: I trust myself. I was there. I may not remember the exact words, details, or sequence of events, but I do remember enough that it has brought me to who I am today.

In other words, this story is part of me. 

Just like your stories are part of you. 

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