how we got here from there

IMG_2110I don’t write memoir. But I like the way Abigail Thomas writes, the way she tells the truth. “My truth doesn’t travel in a straight line, it zigzags, detours, doubles back. Most truths I have to learn over and over again.”

I got hooked on the truth in her fiction first, Getting Over Tom, An Actual Life, and Herb’s Pajamas–the last two are little hardback squares. I loved Safekeeping, her first memoir. Its short sections are a concrete example of her life zigzagging and doubling back, the many truths of herself.

Thinking About Memoir is another little book. A rectangle instead of a square. Thomas writes, IMG_2175“Memories survive on a wisp of a fragrance, or a particular shade of blue…” Then a phrase you’re probably sick of me using, but oh, then I really knew I was in: “This is… about letting one thing lead to another. Follow the details.” She concludes the two-page preface with this,”Memoir is the story of how we got here from there.”  And this story is fascinating whether you write fiction, nonfiction, poetry, or memoir.IMG_2172

She writes, “Be sure to include what you can’t make fit neatly into your idea of yourself, or whatever it is that ruffles the smooth surface of your life story.” This may be the most important thing I’m taking from this book at this moment. Nothing is supposed to be perfect. Let the messy real show through.

The only book of hers I have not read is Three Dog Life, a memoir of her husband’s brain injury. In an article published on June 20, 2009, Marion Winik recounts a moment in that book where  Thomas writes about being accused of “stealing a memory.” “Is memory property?” Abigail Thomas asks. “If two people remember something differently, is one of them wrong?”

IMG_2174And here in this book she adds, “Memory seems to be an independent creature inspired by event, not faithful to it…” I can just imagine this little creature up in my brain somewhere, in a little cave with a kodak instamatic and a pen and a pencil, maybe some file cabinets, doing the best he can to keep track of everything, and interrupted yet again as I get a whiff of  something sweet. His long, floppy ears perk up, and off he goes, scurrying around, eventually delivering summer camp in Vermont, walking to the stables.

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21 thoughts on “how we got here from there

  1. Abigail Thomas asks. “If two people remember something differently, is one of them wrong?”
    The answer, of course, is no. Something I’ve noticed many times when my next youngest sister and I reminisce is that sometimes we remember events with slight differences and sometimes we each recall seemingly important aspects that the other doesn’t remember at all. But as I said in my blog recently, our memories are only our perceptions.

    And I simply love your little hound dog memory keeper!

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    • I agree, Tricia. After the event, what is left can only be a fragment of the whole. We fill in with our own pieces, which will give each one of us a different memory.

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  2. Loved the image of the creature in the cave with instamatic and pencil, eventually conjuring up the summer camp stable in Vermont. Reminds me of Dylan Thomas talking about Mrs. Prothero in “Child’s Chrismas in Wales.”

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    • Cyberchuck, I love “A Child’s Christmas in Wales:”

      “One Christmas was so much like another…that I can never remember whether it snowed for six days and six nights when I was twelve or whether it snowed for twelve days and twelve nights when I was six.”

      “In goes my hand into that wool-white bell-tongued ball of holidays resting at the rim of the carol-singing sea, and out come Mrs. Prothero and the firemen.”

      Thanks for the memory!

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  3. Memories are definately sneaky creatures…I’ve held onto memories for years only to be told I’ve got it wrong by others…they remember differently. So who was right? We both were – it’s all a matter of perception…trouble is, we rely on witness memories for justice…

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    • I like your name, Waggledance! Memories are sneaky creatures, slinking around–sometimes we only get a glimpse of them. Sometimes the harder we look, the more they shrink into the shadows.

      I’m not even sure “getting it right” should come into play with memories. It almost seems as if there should be the event, and then separate from that each person’s memory and what that memory says about the person.

      Thanks for adding to the conversation!

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  4. I think it is true to say that memories are inspired by events, not neccessarily faithful to them. To a great extent that occurs because people remember what they “want” to remember.

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    • Cal, the idea that people remember only what they want to remember goes along with the idea that memories say more about the person doing the remembering than the event. And that there’s no right or wrong memory. Also that we can use memories in fiction to illuminate character.

      Thanks for your comment!

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      • No right or wrong memories? I guess that’s kinda true, unless, of course, you’re a trial lawyer with a witness on the stand…

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        • Correct Cyberchuck! What happened, happened. While the memories may be different, from a factual standpoint only one is “correct.”

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          • Cyberchuck and Cal–I completely agree that what happened, happened. And that the event can be reconstructed through photos, audio recordings, and eye-witness reports.

            What I’m beginning to understand, though, is that my memory of the event is separate from that event and is similar to “my opinion” of something–in that it is neither right nor wrong, and neither is it fact. And that it may say more about me than about the event.

            Cyberchuck, you may want to add Irish writer Anne Enright’s The Gathering, which won the 2007 Man Booker Prize, to the lone book on your fiction shelf. Enright uses memories to contribute to the authenticity of the story, as well as to create its narrative.

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  5. ““Be sure to include what you can’t make fit neatly into your idea of yourself, or whatever it is that ruffles the smooth surface of your life story.” This may be the most important thing I’m taking from this book at this moment. Nothing is supposed to be perfect. Let the messy real show through.”
    This is what we want to read…Just yesterday in discussing book choices, my sister said read that one. She is messy, but for a reason.

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  6. Love this: “Memories survive on a wisp of a fragrance, or a particular shade of blue…” So true.

    It seems sometimes our lives are shaped by our memories, and not the other way around…

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    • I love that line too, Judy. And I agree. I do think our lives are shaped by our memories, particularly with regard to what’s important to us. We often go after something that will give us the same feeling as the one we remember having when…

      It’s nice to see you here. Hope you’ll be back!

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