Details for Your Memoir: What Can You Recall?

Can You Truly Remember All the Details?search.jpg

If you’ve been hesitating to write your life stories for future generations, one impediment might be a concern that you can’t remember exact details for your memoir. I doubt any of us can recall enough details about the past to create a compelling read. Adding to this uncertainty, your friends and family may have different recollections about the same incident. Let’s examine these two dilemmas.

Siblings Disagree About Memoir Details

My brother read one of my stories about a summer day in Paterson, NJ when a teenager turned on the fire hydrant for the kids to cool off. He enjoyed it, but he insisted that I “got it wrong.” It was on a different corner, and the police opened it, not a teenager. As he went on and on about the fire hydrant it became apparent that he was raised in a different family-not really by different parents, but in another era of our family life.

Both versions of the story are true. The exact details are irrelevant, but each emotional memory is unique and memoir worthy. I recall my fear of approaching the needle-like sprays close to the hydrant and the also the rowdy “big kids.” The core of my vignette, however, is elation because I overcame my fear.

My brother doesn’t even remember going into the spray. He played in the puddles created by a slope in the street. His emotional memory is pure delight in splashing with his friends.

What About the Exact Details for Your Memoir?

I’ll share a secret with you about my own memoir. I wrote it so that readers will come close to understanding my character and acquired perspective. The memoir details are plausible, but most likely not correct in every sense. My vision is dimmed by the passage of years.

When memory fails, I close my eyes and recall the scene as a photograph. I see my young self, what I might have worn, who would have been with me, and the physical environment with all its sensory details.

I deliberately construct details that may actually have happened, but which I’m unable to recall with precision. In one vignette called Screaming and Splashing my mother followed after me with rubber slippers in hand as I ran outside. Did I actually wear those slippers on that particular day? I might have, because I remember her insisting on the rubber slippers when we went to the Jersey ‘shore’ or to a public swimming pool. I added this detail to make my story more engaging.

You can do the same with your own stories. Write your memoir as a form of creative non-fiction. “In some ways, creative nonfiction is like jazz—” says Lee Gutkind on his site called It’s a wonderful site to explore.

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