How do I write about a fuzzy memory? What if I don’t remember exactly what happened?
Even while writing fiction, for which we’re afforded a certain creative license, it can be crucial to recount the past accurately. No matter where our writing lies on the fact/fabrication spectrum, there’s always a level of truth we’re trying to achieve.
If you depend on the memories of others, and have access to willing and honest participants, it might be useful to conduct interviews. Even if you doubt their memory/honesty, their misinformation can be informational. What does it say about the story, that someone who experienced it recounts it incorrectly? For your purposes, will it be helpful to interview one person at a time (guarantee their privacy) or in a large group (offer accountability)?
If it was a public event, you might gain insight by reading up on the media the event received. Though be careful, because the media doesn’t always get it right, and many sources can be biased. Consider the cultural context or the political climate surrounding the event, the reporter’s lot in life, the publication’s funding source, and so on and so on.
To uncover personal experiences, there are memory exercises you can try. I’m not suggesting the stereotypical exhuming of forgotten traumas. There’s debate around whether that’s even possible. What I’m suggesting is using gentle reminders that coax back memories you’re pretty certain you once possessed.
If you keep a journal or diary, check back to see what you wrote. Look back at photos you took at the time. Or, just start writing. The more you walk through what you do remember, the other details fall into place. Close your eyes and recount the story out loud, in present tense, describing as many details as you can. Try to explain the event to another person. If they ask you questions about the event, it might trigger a memory you didn’t realize you still had.
Your sense of smell can also pull details from the filing cabinet in the back of your brain. If there’s something you know you smelled during that time, try to clear your mind and find a way to smell that certain something (perfume, spices, grass clippings, pool chlorine, alcohol, burning asphalt, a smoking gun, you get the idea).
Be careful, though. It’s easy to fabricate memories, so remain skeptical of yourself. A false memory can be more harmful than no memory at all.
Originally published with The Loft Literary Center.