November 02, 2015

It’s All About Memory ... But Then, It’s Not - by Marcia Lee Laycock



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Memory is a slippery thing. It can fade with time and it’s often subjective. I’ve been reading a bit about writing memoir lately and one of the things that writers often struggle with as they attempt it, is the fact that what one person remembers may not be at all similar to what others remember about the same event. No two people will see a thing the same way and sometimes those we write about may not agree with our perspective.


This became apparent to me when I wrote a piece about my mom called Dancing in the Kitchen, published in A Second Cup of HotApple Cider. I gave the book to my mom as a gift. She said nothing about the story so while visiting one day I asked if she liked it. “Yes,” she said, “but that’s not how I remember it.”


When I asked her to explain she said she didn’t think the incident was in any way significant. But to me, the moment when my mom taught my two small daughters how to tap dance, even though she had a brace on her leg and a cane in her hand, was a moment I will never forget. It was my memory. My job was to record what I felt at that moment.


Sometimes memories can be blocked or change significantly if a traumatic event has happened. And then there are all those pesky details to worry about – did that walk out of the jungle in Papua New Guinea take five hours or six? When did my mother start working out of our home? It seemed she always did, but my sister says she didn’t start until I was in school.


All of these things can prevent a writer from trying to write memoir because they are afraid they won’t get it right. Or perhaps there are things they would rather not have written down in black and white. 

I had those fears until I attended a short workshop with Sigmund Brouwer and his wife, Cindy Morgan, just after Sigmund’s book Thief of Glory, (a story based on his father’s life), was published. Sigmund talked about the fact that memoir is not autobiography. Not every detail needs to be, nor should be, recorded, and if some of the details aren’t true, that’s okay. Being true to yourself and to your own memories, and to the story, is what’s key. Sigmund commentedd that what you leave out is sometimes just as important as what you leave in and will be determined by what you want your readers to feel.


As I wrote my play, A Pattern in Blue, about my father’s experience during WW2, I was very conscious of trying to get it right, trying to fit all the scattered pieces of that historical event together into a whole that would tell my father’s story and move those who read it or saw it on the stage. At times I despaired of ever getting it exactly right. I was careful with the historical detail but how could I really know what my father felt as he stood at the gates of Bergen-Belsen? How could I really know what he felt in the psychiatric hospital where he spent several months?  

I had to imagine it. The story has been told. It has been read and seen on a stage and the response of those who saw it told me that I accomplished what I set out to do. I told the truth as I believed it would have been.


It’s all about the story. It’s all about making it come alive for the reader and audience. 


It’s all about memory ... but then, it’s not.
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Marcia Lee Laycock writes from central Alberta Canada where she is a pastor's wife and mother of three adult daughters. She was the winner of The Best New Canadian Christian Author Award for her novel, One Smooth Stone. The sequel, A Tumbled Stone was short listed in The Word Awards. Marcia also has two devotional books in print and has contributed to several anthologies. Her work has been endorsed by Sigmund Brouwer, Janette Oke, Phil Callaway and Mark Buchanan.

Abundant Rain, an ebook devotional for writers can be downloaded on Smashwords or on Amazon. It is also now available in Journal format on Amazon. 

Her most recent release is the first book in a fantasy series, The Ambassadors


Sign up to receive her devotional column, The Spur

13 comments:

  1. As one who writes memoir, and struggles with people's responses to it, your comments are spot on, Marcia. A few times I've been asked, "How did you remember the conversations in such detail?"

    "Well, it's memoir," I try to explain. "It's as I remember it, it's the gist of the conversation put in story form so I can show it instead of tell it." Yes, memoir is very different from autobiography.

    "Family Trouble: Memoirists on the hazards and rewards of revealing family" by Joy Castro is a good read on this topic.

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    1. Thanks, Bobbi. I'll have to put that on my to be read list. :)

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  2. Sigmund's advice sounds very sensible. Isn't it interesting how no two people remember the same event in the same way?

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    1. Yes it is, Tracy - even those siblings who are close in age often remember things differently. :)

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  3. "Being true to yourself and to your own memories, and to the story, is what’s key." I am working on a memoir at present and have struggled with much of what you have mentioned..."Being true to yourself and to your own memories, and to the story, is what’s key," is a very helpful statement that I need to remember. I have also dealt with blocked memories that resurfaced...I know some people don't believe that can happen but the way those memories came back to me and the perfect timing was miraculous...still...it's not the easiest to get that across on paper...writing memoir really is a challenge in many ways, including different family perspectives as you mentioned. Bobbi's book suggestion 'Family Trouble,' sounds very good. I am also going to look up the people you mentioned Marcia. This has been very helpful to me. I love that your story on your father turned into a play. It would be so interesting to see it in another form.

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    1. Thanks, Gloria. You can read the story about my dad in a short devotional - it's also fitting for the remembrance theme. Here's the link - http://marcialeelaycock.com/2014/11/10/war-story/
      :)Marcia

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  4. Pat Gerbrandt3:29 pm GMT-7

    Thanks, Marcia. I confess I've never studied the difference between autobiography and memoir, so I was confused too, about what to include and how to maintain integrity. Now I can work more confidently!
    Tracy, our differing recollections are both wonderful and a little scary! In memoir and autobiography, we validate them as we respect individuals' memories. The scary part is best left to investigations that rely on eyewitness accounts and legal statements. I'm thankful there are people who work in those fields. I'm very happy to stick with writing!

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    1. Glad this was helpful, Pat. :)

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  5. Thanks for this encouragement, Marcia. I write devotional books and articles which I sometimes embellish, which is another word for "decorate." The story is true, but some minor details may change to decorate the setting. Some call this "Creative nonfiction."

    Jen

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    1. Hi Jeanette. Yes, Creative non-fiction is another interesting genre. I've written some and love the form. :)

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  6. This was excellent Marcia. I too like Sigmund's advice. Last year I took a Cognitive Psychology course through Athabasca University and I was constantly reminded of how amazing our brains are, especially in the area of memories. Your blog reminded me of that again. Thanks.

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  7. Well done/said, Marcia. And isn't that just like the Bible - same stories, different accounts, depending on the writer.
    This has made me even more excited about the memoir class being presented at the Drayton library in a few weeks! And a play - how wonderful.

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  8. This is so true, Marcia, and who knows? Maybe the Lord decides what we remember, and how we remember it happening, so we can say what he wants us to say to the readers he has chosen to read our writing? So glad you're blessing so many with your words!

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