Relying on other people’s memories is the worst thing you can do if you’re writing a memoir. But are your own memories any more reliable?
The memoir is the book genre du jour. There are sad memoirs of abuse and folly beyond comprehension, happy memoirs of carefree days spent in earthly paradises, and everything in between. It sounds legitimate, even clever to say you are writing a memoir: ‘I am working on a memoir of my invention of the non-veering shopping trolley.’ ‘I’m penning a memoir of the six months I spent on a remote Caribbean island with a group of transgender nasal-oto-throat hummers.’ ‘I’ve got a contract to deliver a memoir of the solo journey I took in a rowboat to the South Pole with only a packet of toothpicks and a bottle of Baileys Irish Cream.’ ‘I am writing a tell-all memoir of the eight hours I spent as nanny in the dying days of the Shane and Simone Warne household.’ Abelard, the famous medieval lover of Heloise, called his short memoir, without a trace of post-modern irony, Historia Calamitatum Mearum (‘the story of my misfortunes’).
But writing one’s memoirs in the plural is a different story (pardon the pun). It conjures up images of a mono-bosomed Edwardian dowager with grey curls and pince-nez, scribbling furiously about the indignant correspondence she carried on with the Lord High Chancellor during the searing summer of 1876, or a stack of inch-thick notebooks produced by a boy of humble birth who conveniently joined Her Majesty’s army as a private in 1946 and after fifty years of dedicated service had risen to the rank of Chief of the General Staff (easily five volumes, and an editor’s nightmare).
More modern versions might include a post-retirement teacher penning her account of an entire professional life wielding chalk and dodging missiles in the country’s most blighted school in its most disadvantaged suburb or, better still, an embittered ex-Telstra employee spilling the beans about decades of ‘restructuring’.
But what is the nature of memory, the word suggested by ‘memoir’? In questioning (interrogating?) my family for my own memoir of my early and university years in Melbourne, I have found not just that memories of the same event differ sharply, but that we all seem to have different recollections, as if we’re all suffering from partial amnesia.
As soon as I started querying my family around the dinner table after Friday night fish and chips, my sister volunteered that there had been a mirror in the bedroom I shared with her, a long mirror without a frame that stood propped up against the bedroom wall. She said that one day, when we both in bed sick, we set up the mirror to lie horizontally between our two beds so that we could play cards and Trouble, our favourite board game.
‘And while we were playing, the mirror broke’, she said. ‘I can remember it dropping to the floor and smashing. And mum was furious.’
The curious thing is, this doesn’t quicken my own memory, doesn’t cause an instantaneous ‘oh yeah, that’s right!’ Instead, one of the Loch Ness monsters of memory merely stirs in its vast lake and the water ripples slightly. A memory of a memory bubbles up, nothing more. But when I try to question her about the weird-looking mobile that hung in the centre of the bedroom at the time (‘Surely you remember? It had bright green cardboard fishes!’) she looks at me blankly.
Same event, different memories
Other times the memories do coincide but they differ in ways that show our contrasting means of viewing and dealing with the world. When I was about ten my family took its annual holiday to Torquay. As usual, our teacher father, who hated the beach, stayed home to do odd jobs, union work, and no doubt enjoy the peace and quiet. I returned from the holiday to find that he had wallpapered our bedroom with what the tactful would describe as an unfortunate design, all curlicues and swirling posies in lilac and aqua.
What I remember of this incident is meeting my father at my grandmother’s before we got home. He took a sample of the wallpaper out of a plastic bag and cheerfully told my sister and me about his handiwork. I stared at the sample in disbelief. I had been planning to go with him to the store to choose the wallpaper and had pictured some groovy 1970s geometric design that would be the envy of my friends. I could not believe he had actually gone ahead and done it.
But what my more practical, forgiving sister remembers is getting home and noticing that one of the rolls had been applied upside down. ‘The wallpaper was an improvement’, she insists, ‘although it didn’t really go with the bedspreads, which were white and had a green-and-blue rooster design’.
The perils of plundering
And is ‘memoir’ even the right word to use when we want to plunder other people’s memories to embroider our own? Almost as soon as I began writing my memoir I realised that its evocations of the past would be ten times more vivid if I chased up old friends and acquaintances and queried them for their reminiscences.
But my central dilemma was this: in my work to date I had described them in all their childhood and adolescent glory with brutal honesty. One of them was ‘lumpy’, one had ‘steady, ruthless eyes’, another was passionate and engaged but also bitter and misanthropic, and yet another suffered from adenoids (I had not spared myself; I am easily the most obnoxious, badly dressed character in the book).
Relying on friends to fill in the gaps in my memory would compromise my independence, forcing me to describe them more politely, and I would therefore not do it. Unlike family they might not be forgiving if they did not like their ‘portraits’. In fact, just imagining their reactions to my descriptions of them if I had subjected them to a barrage of questions spoilt all my fantasies of the congratulatory reception the memoir would get if it were published: ‘Look what that so-and-so has written about me after all the help I gave her – how could she!’ (Book is then hurled across room.)
I did make one exception to this rule. While I am writing I find an excuse to google some name or minor fact every fifteen minutes or so. It is usually a complete waste of time but gives me a much-needed break from the emotional spade-work. On one of these digressions I googled an old university pal, Anna, and found a description of her work role, including contact details, on the website of her workplace. The entry even included a photo. I felt like an utter snoop.
I sent off a humble email explaining that I was writing a memoir that was partly about university life in the 1980s and would love to catch up and have a chat about the past. The reply came back swiftly: yes, she would be happy to see me – and would I like to go to her place for dinner?
The amazing thing was that Anna, who had been living in Tasmania for almost two decades, had recently returned to Melbourne, and she and her husband had bought a house in the next suburb to mine. I raced around there. She was just the same, as the cliché goes, only having magically acquired a brainy husband and two sweet, giggly boys.
Anna was originally from rural Victoria so moved out into a share household long before I did. In my second year of university I often stayed with her in the inner city terrace she shared, and her eccentric, slightly older housemates were my first taste of the bohemian Carlton of the early 1980s.
But when it came to memories, things got difficult. Did she remember Rick, who had three lovers and took us to see obscure films at the Valhalla? What about sweet, pretty Jackie, with her endearing lisp, and the thespian Adam? And who could forget the hardy Emma, who taught us to cook curry with spices other than Keen’s?
To Anna it was all a blur. She could hardly recall their names, let alone who they were or what they did. Quite properly they were the backdrop of her life, not its main focus. I would have to settle for my own memories of these people, and although my brain had dipped their faces and personalities in the mental version of formaldehyde it had let other vital details rot.
A work of reconstruction
The word ‘memoir’ is misleading for other reasons. Sure, not everyone wants to write like Augusten Burroughs, the former advertising whiz-kid whose memoir Running with Scissors was a runaway bestseller. (Burroughs’s writing evokes a neon-bright hyper-reality, and indeed his family accused him of fabricating events in the memoir.) But even the most truth-telling memoir is hardly pure memory: it’s a painstaking work of reconstruction, of re-making the world.
Take dialogue for instance. Who remembers most of what they actually said twenty years ago, except in moments of huge emotional impact? (Perhaps some people do but I’m not one of them.) Instead, most of the time I have had to imagine the words I exchanged with others. In doing so, I slowly and painstakingly re-create a vanished period. I make my story tell-able, I translate it, I render all its faint notes and echoes audible. And I hope that my subconscious is somehow guiding me, that the recording angel stands behind me, vetting every word.
This process raises tantalising questions about the past. What words did we use in those lost pockets of time? And what exactly did we talk about during the many mundane moments, waiting for trams or watching the swimming carnival or sitting in the lecture theatre just before the first-ever Criminal Law lecture?
Fragments of remembered sayings between my school friends and me that were repeated so many times they are part of my mental scrapbook have therefore become incredibly precious. In Form Six, I recall, every book and film was ‘pithy and poignant’. I was said to be a ‘pseudo-intellectual’ who thought ‘it was all a farce’. My best friend Bernadette was ‘a caged lion’ and, one of our friends being Greek, we all derived juvenile enjoyment from singing the folksong ‘Maria me ta kitrina’ with mind-numbing repetitiveness.
These days, writing a memoir doesn’t necessarily leave you scrabbling for your next project. Assuming your first memoir is successful, you simply write another one. The US writer Kathryn Harrison followed The Kiss with Seeking Rapture and The Mother Knot. No sooner had Augusten Burroughs finished Running with Scissors then he was trying to cope with being Dry and preparing to confront A Wolf at the Table (ie his father).
Craig Sherborne followed his stunning, novel-like Hoi Polloi with Muck (not literally of course). Perhaps, then, the modern meaning of ‘memoirs’ has changed – no longer does the plural refer to a long, sprawling account of a complicated, usually privileged life; instead, one’s memoirs are a succession of pithy and poignant page-turners, hopefully all bestsellers.