Writer's Edit

A newsletter for novel writers looking for inspiration and advice on their creative journey.

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Fiction and Memory

Fiction & Memory, Jonathan Franzen, Damon Galgut & Julian Barnes.
Fiction & Memory, Jonathan Franzen, Damon Galgut & Julian Barnes.

I remember writing a book. Or trying to, at least. It was a pile of memories I had collected over a three-month period – a collection from which I thought something could be created. These were memories that I had gone over and over in my head and scenes that I had created next to them, or within them – so much so that I couldn’t remember what was real and what I had fictionalised. This story became a book about memories, which was never my intention. It was about my recollection of a particular person and the memories they had of their travels, which they had shared with me at the time. It was also about memories of theirs that I had fictionalised for the purpose of the novel itself.

Jonathan Franzen wrote an essay about memory, titled ‘My Father’s Brain’ in his collection of essays How to be Alone. Its focus is his father during the time in which he dealt with Alzheimer’s. If I paraphrase, Franzen said: no memory is real. Our memories are made up from other memories. They are inaccurate recollections of the past that we then project into new memories; a never-ending cycle. Your memory of your mother for example, or what you know about her – is a collection of ‘memories’ that you have pieced together to form her character in your mind. This is the character that you insert into any given memory where your mother is present. She may not, and probably wasn’t that character at that point in time; that Christmas or that birthday. But your mind has made it so. Because that is what you think you know.

It’s a scary concept; the idea that nothing you know is accurate, nothing is true. Franzen himself summarises the musings of others and says that the mind fills in gaps. When you don’t quite hear what someone has said, you guess and then assume you heard in the first place. When something obscures part of your vision, your mind forms the rest of the picture before you, even though you can’t physically see it… He applies this to memories. Where we (mostly unconsciously) can’t remember details, say, what your mother was wearing that Christmas day, or her tone of voice – your mind fills in these gaps as well, with previous memories and previous falsities.

It felt strange coming to this realisation about my then novel… Previously, I had never understood the absolute poignancy of memory in fiction, or fiction in memory, and its complete and utter relevance to anyone; reader, writer or neither.

The Sense of an Ending, by Julian Barnes - an exploration of the changing nature of memory over time.
The Sense of an Ending, by Julian Barnes – an exploration of the changing nature of memory over time.

Since then, I have come across three things besides Franzen’s essay that leave me in a state of awe in regards to memory and fiction. First, is Julian Barnes’ The Sense of an Ending. On the first page, after the protagonist recalls a list of objects, he says “What you end up remembering isn’t always the same as what you witnessed… so I need to return briefly to a few incidents that have grown into anecdotes, to some approximate memories which time has deformed into certainty. I can’t be sure of the actual events any more, I can at least be true to the impressions those facts left. That’s the best I can manage.”

The second is In a Strange Room by Damon Galgut (we recommend every writer read this book here, also refer to it for inspiration, here). This novel approaches memory in a way that I had not experienced before, with the narrator narrating his past self with the observations and opinions of his present self. As convoluted as it sounds, Galgut pulls it off spectacularly, and the reader experiences with the protagonist, what’s like to be unable to trust your own memory of yourself. Damon, the character who shares the same name as the author, narrates: [quote]Looking back at him through time, I remember him remembering, and I am more present in the scene than he was. But memory has its own distances, in part he is me entirely, in part he is a stranger I am watching.”[/quote]

Thirdly, is the TED Talk below featuring Psychological Scientist, Elizabeth Loftus speaking. Having spent years of studying ‘false memories’, Loftus discusses how most people believe memory to be similar to a recording device – that they experience or witness an event, and can recall exactly what unfolded before their eyes at a later date. Memory is more constructive than that, says Loftus, not too dissimilar to Mr. Franzen’s ideas above. Below, she ventures, that false memories can be implanted in anyone’s brain by suggestions, leading questions, imagination, dreams and forms of psychotherapy. She claims that we have the ability to change someone’s memory.

For more inspirational and thought-provoking TED talks, click here.

When I think about the interwoven nature of memory and fiction, I am left feeling overwhelmed. It seems, you cannot have one without the other, whether it’s a case of ‘filling in the gaps’ of your own memory, an author using snippets of their recollections for their fiction, or a work that actually addresses the concept of memory itself. Just look at the three cases we’ve touched upon in this article: unreliable narrators, past and present tenses, and the extremities of a disease such as Alzheimer’s… the ideas and possible explorations are endless and consuming. With memory often turning out to be constructed fictitiously, and fiction itself being arguably just as accurate as a memory, is it any wonder why the two fields are inextricably linked?


Writer’s Edit is a newsletter for novel writers looking for inspiration and advice on their creative journey.