Do you ever wonder what memory really, truly is? I often do, because it seems to be more like a river than a file cabinet. And as a writer, I am always drawing on memory for little details and simple snapshots of what the world is really like.
Except my memories are all wrong. And so are yours. If you don’t believe me, look it up. Here’s a place to start.
What I think I remember from my childhood and young adulthood isn’t, in reality, what I experienced at the time. This is the way memory works for all of us. Let me give you a personal example.
When I was about six, a skeleton (as in a full human body skeleton) walked past my bedroom door. We lived in a trailer when I was young, and the room my older brother and I shared opened onto a narrow hallway that ran half the length of the entire trailer. It led to both bedrooms and the bathroom. My brother and I had bunk beds, and the foot of the bed faced the doorway into the hall. We also lived in Pennsylvania (as I do still), and winters here can be pretty rough.
So, it was a cold winter’s night, and I was laying in my bed. I think I had been asleep and something woke me up – perhaps a storm – but I remember looking down my bed at the door into the hall. I heard a creaking sound traveling down the hall, which I remember being footsteps. Then, remarkably, an animated skeleton passed in front of our bedroom door. As it did so – taking long, languid strides – it LOOKED at me! I can see this in my mind as clearly as I see the room I’m in while typing this blog.
The truth, of course, is very different. The creaking was the sound of the wind pushing hard against a flimsy single-wide trailer, and my mind interpreted this as someone walking down the hall. For whatever reason – probably because I have a freaky imagination – what my mind filled in as the thing walking was a skeleton. But it was so real! I wasn’t afraid, rather amazed, but it never actually happened.
That’s the nature of memory. I don’t need anyone to tell me this is a false memory; skeletons don’t actually walk around, thank goodness. But the fact that I refer to it in my mind as a memory and not as a hallucination or dream is an illustration of how our brains work. Or rather, don’t always work the way we expect.
So when you go to write, understand that the memories you are drawing upon are more likely to be false than true, at least in some respects. I remember clearly the day I married my wife, and the gist of the memory is totally accurate. However, there are details that I recall now that weren’t there, or were different then. And my past is changed by my present, as my present, when it becomes just a memory, will be changed by my future.