My memoir writing workshop spring season continues… and so does my learning and growing, because I get as much from my students as they (I hope) get from me.
In class we’ve been discussing the tricks memory plays on us. Let me offer three examples, backed up by neuroscience.
1. Confirmation Bias: This is is the tendency to search for, interpret, or recall information in a way that confirms one’s beliefs or hypotheses. You might remember Aunt Marge as a delightful doter, or Uncle Homer as a disturbing drunk. And yet, isn’t it more likely that Marge had some flaws and Homer had some good qualities? For stories to be rich we need complexity – details good and bad! For proof of Confirmation Bias, take the “Monkey Business” test, here. As you count the times the players pass the ball (what you are instructed to observe) you quite likely missed other changes you were not instructed to observe. Take a lesson from the invisible gorilla–seek a deeper understanding of people and situations than first presents itself.
2. Repetition Overwrite: Writing about an episode in your life may cause you to lose touch with the original memory. You can even unwittingly replace an old true memory with a newer false one.
When we reminisce, we draw on portions of the brain involved in long-term memory. As we try to draw meaning from that story, or choose words to tell it artfully, it’s necessary to move it into short-term memory. Then when we “re-file” that story in long-term memory, it replaces the original memory with one colored by the more recent recollection.
If you work on that essay multiple times over a number of consecutive days, you are adding the “spaced repetition” effect–in essence using your brain’s neuroplasticity to learn a new version of that story. You may never be able to recall it again in all its original richness of emotion and detail. Instead you will remember struggling to write the essay, or getting a positive reaction from an audience, for example. (It’s like that with my and my Foxy story.)
Memoirists: don’t start changing names until the last minute when you plan to publish your work. And when you do start to work on an essay, mine your memory for every detail, every sense memory, every scrap of dialog–because repetition overwrite might rob you of that rich trove.
3. Positivity Effect: This age-related trait favors positive over negative stimuli in cognitive processing. Older people attend to and remember more positive than negative information, in comparison to their younger counterparts. This has been linked to emotional wellbeing in older people–overall, it’s a good thing! But for memoir writers, it poses a challenge: it may take more work to recall and write about long-past negative episodes in your life. You may find yourself recalling those episodes in a more positive light, being aware of the ways in which a negative episode helped you develop positive traits like resilience and wisdom.
Ultimately, why do we care about the tricks memory plays on us? Because we aren’t here to make this stuff up. As author Lee Gutkind says–creative nonfiction as a literary genre–one that includes memoir–demands a true story, well told!
Memories certainly play tricks. In confirmation bias in Archie Smith below, I knew he was like all of us, an imperfect man.I mentioned that he occasionally over-served himself at the VFW. But that wasn’t important to the relationship we had so I didn’t develop it. We see only a narrow slice of Archie. I know he loved his wife and daughter as in Retta laughing at his getting caught in the clothesline. But the relationship I described is all I ever knew of him.
Repetition overwrite: To tell Archie’s story artfully is a way of getting to the essence of him that I wanted to capture. I believe maturity and insight can get closer to the truth with the passage of time because reflection over time becomes deeper-more insightful and therefore closer to the all elusive truth.
Positivity effect: I believe this too is a function of mature interpretation.With Archie I looked at only one part of the man because it resonated with me and other maybe darker sides of him were unknowable to me and therefore irrelevant.
Thanks for this Sarah. It is so right on. I’m keeping it as a reference for future work and revisions when the mood hits me.