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).
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.
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?