How do you write memoir when memory fails?

On demanding ‘truth’ from memoir

I have been open—perhaps uncomfortably open—about the fact that the last year has been A Lot.

In September 2020, I came out as a lesbian to my then-husband; we immediately separated, and I moved into a roach-infested shit-hole of an apartment in October; on New Year’s Day 2021, my mother elected to go on hospice after nearly two years of aggressive, painful cancer, and by the end of January, she was gone at the age of 52; in March, my divorce was final; and now, in July, I am preparing for a second pandemic move and reflecting on how the hell I am still here.

Writers gonna write

To say “I’ve always been a writer” would be an understatement. As we discussed in my last post, I’ve been blogging for nearly 20 years, but even before that, I had been writing in many other forms. I started journaling at age 6, and wrote my first “novel” that same year. For years, I wrote short stories and “novels” and journaled like I would die if I didn’t log every thought in my series of composition notebooks. At age 14, I started writing poetry with a fervor.

But even with all this documentation, there are huge gaps in my personal history—things I couldn’t or wouldn’t write down, things I didn’t find important, or things documented so cryptically that I can’t decipher it now, decades later.

The fallibility of the memory

In my journals’ gaps, I return to my once reliable memory. However, between the passing of time, the brain fog that accompanies chronic pain, and the nature of trauma, I have begun to wonder if I can trust myself to write about this journey with any accuracy, even just the events of the last few years.

How do you write a memoir when you feel like your memory is failing you? How do you share your story when you aren’t sure what your story is anymore?

Turning to mentors for guidance

In her essential work Bird by Bird, Anne Lamott says:

“Perfectionism is the voice of the oppressor, the enemy of the people…I think perfectionism is based on the obsessive belief that if you run carefully enough, hitting each stepping-stone just right, you won't have to die. The truth is that you will die anyway…”

Lamott also says:

“Remember that you own what happened to you…If something inside of you is real, we will probably find it interesting, and it will probably be universal. So you must risk placing real emotion at the center of your work. Write straight into the emotional center of things. Write toward vulnerability. Risk being unliked. Tell the truth as you understand it. If you’re a writer you have a moral obligation to do this. And it is a revolutionary act—truth is always subversive.”

In Writing Down the Bones, Natalie Goldberg says, “Life is not orderly. No matter how we try to make it so, right in the middle of it we die, lose a leg, fall in love, or drop a jar of applesauce.”

Goldberg also says, “Write what disturbs you, what you fear, what you have not been willing to speak about. Be willing to be split open.”

Sandra Cisneros says, “Writing is like sewing together what I call these ‘buttons,’ these bits and pieces.”

bell hooks says, “The function of art is to do more than tell it like it is—it’s to imagine what is possible.”

I turn to Lamott and Goldberg and Cisneros and hooks and so many more when I need guidance or support while writing. Their works, especially those that contend with the writing or art-making process, are woven into the foundation of my creative life, the giants’ shoulders I am kindly allowed to stand upon. They speak directly to these queries about memory and authenticity in memoir—how to tell the truth when you struggle to know what the truth is.

Memoir makes few promises

Something I am still struggling to accept at this point is how a memoir only promises to tell a version of the story—my truth, not the truth—and that because of that, as long as I am committed to being as honest and genuine as I can be, my memoir will do what it promises to do.

To be honest, writing a memoir—and admitting that I am writing a memoir—makes me really uncomfortable, more so than any other admission I’ve made in the last year. I think this is because to admit that you want to tell your story, that you think your story deserves to be remembered, means you have to admit that you value your life. This is something I have had to learn how to do through years of therapy, and goes against the dominant narrative that we are all just cogs in a greater machine, perhaps worth something to our immediate loved ones but mostly nobodies. And to consider yourself otherwise is a profound arrogance, especially at age 31.

Learning not to care

The thing is, I have to learn not to care. That is the crux of so many of my problems over the years—learning not to care what others might think if I admitted I was gay. Learning not to care what others might think if I admitted I wanted to go back to school. Learning not to care what extended family would think of my politics. For a decade, I just wanted to keep the peace most of the time—and what did that get me, in the end?

Now, I need to learn not to care if I don’t remember everything perfectly, and don’t have documentation for what I can’t remember. I need to learn not to care if someone finds me sharing this story to be arrogant or narcissistic, mostly because I don’t totally disagree—I just think doing so could also do a lot of good.

If I had had a story like mine when I was growing up, maybe things would have been different for me. Maybe I wouldn’t have stayed in the closet so long. Maybe I would have pushed harder as a teen to figure out why I was in so much physical pain. Maybe I could have done more for my mam.

I’ll never know what could have been for myself. But I can find out the good that could come from sharing my story with others now. And that’s reason enough to keep writing.