IN HIS CREATIVE NONFICTION MAGAZINE ARTICLE, Finding Truth in Technology, Sejal H. Patel discusses the potential for conflict between writing the truth as we remember it and using technology to reveal and research the facts. “Technology,” as discussed in the article, includes pictures, recordings, video, online web tools, such as WordReference.com, Google maps, historical websites, and online communities where we can reconnect with the characters of our lives.
Patel highlights stories from five writers detailing how the use of such technologies has both helped and hindered them. While photos and videos can jog memories and help us remain true to the facts, such as when describing how our mother looked and the clothes she wore, they can also pull us away from the story as we remember it. Our memories express our inner truths — our perceptions and understanding of life events and how we have made meaning of them — in ways that the documentation of those events cannot capture.
With so many tools at our disposal, there is the danger that we may sacrifice the truth of our memories for the facts, or get lost in the sheer volume of details we uncover during our research.
That danger may be real, but I believe the risk is small — and worth taking. I would rather have the ability to dig deeper into the documented reality of a time in my life than risk the danger of portraying people and events in ways that, while true to memory, are not true to what really happened.
For example, when I was writing the first draft of my memoir, Not the Mother I Remember, I wrote a scene describing how, when I was only twelve years’ old, my mother took me along on a date with her boyfriend to see the movie, Last Tango in Paris. The movie, starring Marlon Brando and Maria Schneider, was sexually explicit, raw and violent. The events it portrayed shocked and traumatized me. As we left the theater, my mother commented, “Excellent photography.” And that was it. We never spoke about what we had seen or how either of us felt about it.
My mother’s decision to take me to that movie at that age had always seemed to me to be particularly irresponsible. However, when I was writing about it, I decided to search the Internet to find out what year the movie was released. To my surprise, the movie was released in 1972 — I had been seventeen. Not twelve. This fact drastically shifted my perspective (not to mention making me question the veracity of my memories), and though my emotional reaction remains indelibly inked into my memory, the story I had told about my mother all those years had to be revised. I could now see my mother in a more compassionate light.
Keeping a journal and writing about events as they happen is a form of technology I feel is particularly helpful to the memoir writer. Having access to events, emotions, people, and places that you wrote about while they were fresh, provides the basis for a better — and truer — story. You have at your disposal a window back in time, into your senses and psyche. A window that otherwise gets obscured with time and age.
So I say go ahead. Use all the technology at your disposal. Do your research, conduct those interviews, and watch those old family videos. If your story changes, remind yourself that transformation and growth are simply the inevitable effects of the memoir writing journey.
Learn how to use journaling techniques to write a better memoir.
Enroll in Writing Through Life’s Journaling for Memoir online class.