Memory: the Unreliable Narrator

Has anyone else ever discovered that their memory has been lying to them? That something you were sure happened in a certain way – you remember it happening with clarity – didn’t.

I have. (You probably guessed that.) Two stand out – one is significant to others as well as myself, the other only affects me. I guess the second one came as a shock because it was the second – i.e. my memory had lied to me about more than one thing. In the first instance, I remembered the wrong person doing something disgraceful (I’d say unforgivable, only I did forgive them – it was a long time ago and I forgive the real culprit now I have proof of their identity). In the second, I remembered something in the wrong context – similar but wrong. I’d been convinced that I’d been taught about defamiliarization in detail in an early lesson of my first year Introduction to Creative Writing module – yet I found no word about it in my old notes. I did, however, unearth a one-sentence definition of defamiliarization in my notes from the second year Creative Writing: Fiction module (both at university).

Now that I’m writing this, I’m beginning to think it might not be an all-bad thing. For example, I used the first false memory in a short story and felt a tinge guilty about that (sorry) but now that I know that’s not how it really happened, I don’t. I guess what I’m saying is, having an unreliable memory gives you more freedom to write about things you remember – because they may not have happened in that way, anyway. Your memory of something is influenced by you or your situation or your feelings about something – they have spin – they are not factual accounts. In a way, they are fictions in themselves – a story created by your subconscious about something that happened in your past. Therefore, if you write about a memory, you’re actually writing a fiction based on another fiction.

So, if you have a particular memory that’s haunting you – that you feel you want to write about it but think you shouldn’t – you can let go of the complications of it being about something that happened in reality and write about it.

You could also write a story about a character with an unreliable memory but I’d rather you didn’t – I’m doing that one and I don’t want to share.


2 thoughts on “Memory: the Unreliable Narrator

  1. Hmmm, I’m not sure that’s right. (Sorry, I know this isn’t really the place for wearing my Philosopher’s hat, but you seem to be doing more than saying “oooh, this stuff is interesting” but actually seem to be making an argument here. The problem is that it’s really not clear to me how it’s supposed to work.)

    Paragraph two: memories go wrong sometimes, sometimes VERY wrong. Oh yeah, that’s most definitely true. I had quite a significant memory-going-terribly-wrong experience aged 8 (which probably messed me up for life in some way!), so ever since then I’ve been a little sceptical of memories. (Thanks for the forgiveness for the unforgivable act which it ended up that I actually did not commit anyway, BTW 🙂 )

    In paragraph three the focus switches to you saying that all memories are wrong, because they involve “spin”. That’s true too, but at times you seem to imply that you are making a similar / related point to the one of the previous paragraph, yet they are really quite different points. (Is their only connection that memory is imperfect?)

    Because of this you conclude that it’s OK to write about a memory “that you feel you want to write about it but think you shouldn’t”. But it’s not clear why this follows from either of the two previous claims. Most memories actually happened, and even if they are a little distorted by “your situation or your feelings about something” that doesn’t change that they are mostly about stuff that actually happened. And so it’s not clear why this would make any difference to the “complications” which would prevent you using a memory for a story. Perhaps it would be useful to spell out what kind of complications you are talking about, in order to explain why spin makes them insignificant. But for any complications which I can think of the fact that memories involve a little spin seems prima facie irrelevant.

    Looking forward to the story with the character which an unreliable memory though. Could be fun times 🙂

  2. You know, you’re becoming one of those teachers/ tutors who can’t not teach all the time. (I know – double negative – so disown me.)

    My main intention, here, was to suggest that you should not be held back from writing about something because it’s founded in reality. Of course, me saying that is not going to be enough – you can tell someone to ‘let go’ of their personal attachment but it’s one of those things that’s so much easier said than done. I’m more just making a theoretical point.

    Also – it worked for me. OK, it was a non-major aspect of a story and I wrote it before I discovered the truth but at least I don’t have to worry about it, now.

    You’ll have to wait a while for that one – stuck on something else at the moment.

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