Writing Memoir: The 'Remembered Truth'

Category: Writing

Are you sure you know what you were doing the day Elvis died?

The day Elvis died I went to the village shop to see my best friend. Her mum weighed me out a quarter of aniseed balls and my friend stood behind the counter and wept.

I remember it well. And I think of it often.

Except maybe it never happened.

I recently reminded my friend of that day 36 years ago and she frowned and said:  ‘I don’t remember crying when Elvis died’. I thought about it. She was my best friend throughout school and she was made of tough stuff. I don’t remember her crying any other time:  Not at primary school when we were forced to eat celery someone else had sneezed on; not when we were made to stand outside at playtime in the perishing cold until our noses dripped down our anoraks; not even when the Bay City Rollers 1975 tour missed our village by many a mile.

She didn’t cry on any of those occasions. So maybe she didn’t cry on Tuesday August 16th 1977 either. 

Memories are funny things and now I’m not sure I know what I was doing the day Elvis died.

I’ve recently started working on a creative non-fiction project that includes strands of memoir. I have a good memory. It’s one of the things I’m proud of; I remember things. I’ve always been one of life’s observers; the quiet kid at the back reading, or sitting with a pen and pad, taking notes.

I remember lines of dialogue from over forty years ago. I remember facial expressions. I remember working out the subtext of what aunts and uncles and grandparents really meant a lifetime ago – or at least knowing there often was a subtext. I’m the family archivist with over 50 albums of photographs and ephemera. I know the stories attached to the items – ornaments and bits of jewellery – that have hung around the family home for a few generations.

But I also know memories are slippery. My memories are based on how I perceived a situation at the time and how I’ve filtered it through my life experience.  Someone else at the same time and place observing the same events would have a different set of perceptions and memories and different stories to tell.

If I was writing fiction about the day Elvis died I could have my friend emerging from the back shop wearing a white rhinestone tribute suit and singing Lonesome Tonight. Fiction’s good that way. But with memoir I’ve got an obligation to tell ‘the truth’, to get it right.

This is a responsibility because it involves real people. However, most of the people I’m writing about are dead. Some have been dead thirty or forty years. Despite this I want to treat them fairly and not just as grist to the writer’s mill. Some of the stories I’m telling probably fall into the category of ‘legend’ – there’s an amount of uncertainty but the stories are plausible and accepted within the family. Some stories can be fleshed out by checking photographs and diaries and letters.  But for others I’m relying on my memory to tell my ‘remembered truth’.

I recently read the advice of the Pulitzer prize-winning novelist, Jeffrey Eugenides:  ‘Write like you were dead.’ I took this to mean we shouldn’t censor our true feelings but we should write as though our words will not be read until after we are dead.

I found this freeing. The memoir strands in my current project have been chosen to create meaning and are my remembered truth. There are of course many stories that have not been chosen, and could have created an entirely different meaning. However, the chosen stories are written with integrity and without looking over my shoulder to check that everyone else’s perceptions tally with my own or hoping for the approval of anyone else.

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The day Elvis died I went to the village shop to see my best friend. Her mum weighed me out a quarter of aniseed balls and my friend stood behind the counter and wept.

I remember it well. And I think of it often.

Catherine Simpson

Catherine Simpson received a 2012/13 New Writers Award. Her first novel Chicken Dust was shortlisted for the Mslexia Women’s Novel Competition 2011. She is now completing her second novel Truestory and is developing a creative non-fiction project on one of her favourite subjects: death.