Memory is a funny thing. It defines our motives. It helps us define our lives. What we can remember is what we can pass on. What we remember is our truth. But here’s the kicker. Writing true stories, whether they be of your memories or the memories of others as told to you can be a real challenge. Here’s some stuff I’ve noticed about it.
For a start, writing memories is an emotional minefield. Memories have an implied ownership. Your memories, right? Your memories may be your own, but keep in mind others who may have experienced the same event or time period with you, also have implied ownership of how they remember things. It’s their recollection, their own truth.
About half of the new writers I work with want to write plays based on a family memory of some sort. Telling a story from your memory of family life is a natural new writer’s reflex. You know most about your own time with family. You’re a flaming expert on how you feel about certain things that happened in our family. Many of the writers that chose to write about family are genuinely concerned at how their writing about the past will be received by those who lived the same memories. As well they should be. Recalling the past—or retelling the past—when there is family involved is entirely fraught.
People have a tendency to remember what they want to remember and ‘slick over’ what they don’t chose to recall or simply didn’t notice at the time. That’s perfectly fine and part of the human’s mind’s way of organising thoughts. Odds are on that your memories of an event don’t square up to what others remember of the same event.
If you’re preparing a “warts and all” story about the past, be prepared for some disagreement from those who lived it with you or those who disagree with your decision to write it like you did. Be also prepared for some less than causal backlash complete with high tackle and eye-gouging from those who don’t appreciate your spin on things in general. Even if you think you are keeping it light and not ‘warty’ at all, there will be at least one person who questions it.
So how do you make it easy on yourself and still write stories about your experiences in family life? You could talk to your family about your intentions.
“I’m writing a story about Grandma’s journey out of poverty in Europe and how it impacted the whole family. I’m researching it a lot, reading books about that time, talking to everyone who knew her. I’m going to make it truthful so it won’t always be a rosy story.”
Ok, depending on how that family member felt about dear old Grandma and depending on what the truth actually is, that conversation could go great or could go south really quickly, right?
People get nervous around public airings of family matters, good, bad and indifferent.
The alternative is to bury your source.
That is to say, take the story out of all known facts, removing names and places, mixing up the events with fiction. But I ‘ll bet everyone still wants to connect it with your family anyway, or at least will suspect you have covered your butt by obscuring the facts. You’ll still get a backlash of some sort. You could even land in hotter water because you stole Granma’s story and didn’t tell it accurately!
How about you bury your source more? And this will require real skill as a writer.
Ask yourself what is special about this particular true story?
What emotions are at play?
Be as general as you can be about the underlying current of the truth you want to tell. That story about Grandma escaping poverty in Europe—isn’t it a story about oppression, desperation, overcoming fear, errors of judgement, psychological trauma, generational baggage, enduring hope? So that’s the emotional framework of the work.
Now working only with the emotional scaffolding of the truth about your grandma’s experience, you begin a completely new story. The story you build off this scaffolding has no grandma and no family ties. It doesn’t involve anything remotely comparable to the story of your grandma, but it is the story of your grandma experienced emotionally. The difference is vast.