The nature of memory, truth, and non-fiction writing

Yesterday I read an article for The New York Review of Books that my wonderful and ever curious girlfriend pointed me towards, titled “Speak, Memory” (click to see the article) by author and neurologist Oliver Sacks (for whom long-time readers will know I have the deepest respect).

Memory is not a simple part of our brains, using several sections to connect the different kinds of memory. Taken the FDA website here.

Memory is not a simple part of our brains, using several sections to connect the different kinds of memory. Taken the FDA website here.

The article, as its title suggests, is about memory, and is well worth a read. It discusses how we construct certain parts of our memory from the stories other people tell us about those same events – so much so that often our memory is no longer our own, as if it were a false memory, although Sacks suggests that there is very little neurological difference between these possibly false memories and “real” memories that are closer to the truth. He tells of how two of his reminiscences of his boyhood in London during the Blitz in WWII were included in his boyhood memoir Uncle Tungsten, but after he published it his brother pointed out to him that he couldn’t possibly remember the second event because he wasn’t actually there at the time. Naturally, Sacks was stunned to find that a memory he swore was real was in fact impossible, and existed only due to a very vivid letter written by a family member who was present at the time.

The article then goes on to discuss “source confusion” regarding memories, unconscious plagiarism, and other various issues that come with all of this, but I’ll let you read the piece as Sacks explains it much better than I ever could. Essentially, by the end, it is clear we can’t fully trust our own memories, or anybody else’s, but the strongest and perhaps most truthful narratives come from the collaboration of several people’s minds and perspectives.

The article has got me thinking about writing from memories with regard to non-fiction works such as memoirs, autobiographies, and so on. I remember once, in a university course on non-fiction writing, we discussed the issue of ‘truth’ – what constitutes truth in this genre, and is it possible to ever determine for certain the truth from the lies. The bottom line, we found, is that it is not possible. Truth is entirely subjective, and each person can and does have their own truth – their narrative is theirs to tell, as they remember it, and while this might not seem like the truth to others, perspective and context will always change the interpretation of an event, moment, thought or feeling. We even went as far as to suggest that non-fiction is probably never non-fiction at all, but can be just as fictional as your fantasy novels, sci-fi stories, and so on. Truth is a massive grey-area – there are no lines that can be definitively drawn in the sand when it comes to telling our own stories.

A view of memory beyond an individual's memory. There's probably more detailed and more holistic variations on this, but you get the gist.

A view of memory beyond an individual’s memory. There’s probably more detailed and more holistic variations on this, but you get the gist.

It’s funny now, years after completing that course (I’m still not very keen on writing non-fiction, although the few people who have read my fiction stories have noticed certain little biographical elements in them, especially in some of the characters), that I find myself reading this article by Sacks which suggests the exact same thing, only on a neurological level. In other words, this article proves that what we discussed in that class is absolutely true, that memory cannot be fully trusted because it is constructed by more than just ourselves, and by more than just the events. Yet, I feel this also justifies what we spoke about – non-fiction doesn’t have to be 100% factual, as that is an unachievable goal to reach. It is possible to outright intentionally lie in non-fiction, but it is just as possible to write your own truth, and to believe it is real whether others believe it or not.

What are your thoughts on all of this? How truthful do you often think non-fiction writing is? What are your thoughts on Sacks’ article?

6 thoughts on “The nature of memory, truth, and non-fiction writing

  1. Collective memory obscures real memory, in my opinion. And memory isn’t always the best source for non-fiction; sometimes we imagine things as truth, or we “clean up the rough edges” of our experiences with our own opinions. But as far as possible, I’m sure “non-fiction” genre will have more cross-references to documented facts than not 🙂

    • That’s definitely quite true as well – hearing other people’s versions of events might cause us to question our memories and possibly rewrite them, when our memory was correct in the first place.
      But I’d like to think the majority of non-fiction books do cross-reference like you say, and it’s certainly something that is becoming easier and easier this day and age. 🙂

  2. Memory is indeed subjective. My mother and I wrangle about family memories quite often. We are both probably half right in our own perspective. Memory’s glass definitely becomes streaked and smeared with time.

    • Hahaha yeah, I think my family all argue about different memories. Interestingly I forget a lot of my childhood despite still being in my (rapidly disappearing) 20s, so I tend to just trust my parents on that one haha. It is such an interesting thing to ponder though! 🙂

  3. I suppose truth is in the eyes of the beholder, so to speak. History is written by the victors, with their perspectives on the chain of events and reasons for them. Personal histories are interesting to consider. Are the things we remember, especially events that occurred when we were very young, truly memories or stories our parents/siblings told us that happened? Perhaps the events captured in photographs or home movies that we look back at make us think, yes, I remember when that was taken. Could it be that what we remember is strictly that which was recorded by the camera or is it from our brain’s memory chip?

    Interesting and thought provoking post. 🙂

    • It’s very true about broader history – it is written by the victors, and the further back you go the stronger the bias is and the harder but perhaps more necessary it is to question the history that has been written.
      A lot of the questions you ask I think are very much down the line Oliver Sacks was thinking with his article I linked to. I think so much of our memory can be formed from sources other than our own actual memories, and I think we perhaps block some of our memories too, whether intentionally or not. I remember recently seeing a video of myself as a child, maybe I was six or seven, and I was running around in my own imagination. I not only have no memory of doing this, but I have no memory of ever acting the way I did in this video, of seeming so disconnected from the real world. It’s like a part of my brain that I could only access as a child, and when that part of my brain could no longer be accessed it took the memory with it, so when I saw the video my parents took of it (and they had clear memories of it), I was actually a little horrified at what I saw, as if somebody had rewritten part of my childhood. It was all very strange and surreal.
      Anyway, every time I comment on this post in reply to others I keep thinking of new things hahaha. I’ve probably contradicted myself a number of times already…oh well.
      I’m glad you enjoyed the post, and thank you for your insightful thoughts! 🙂

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