Monday, February 11, 2013

Memories and Writing

I was half-listening to Fiona Ritchie’s Thistle and Shamrock yesterday when an Appalachian songwriter said that her grandfather always claimed that two facts in a story makes the whole story true. The songwriter, Sheila Kay Adams, continued by saying (I’m paraphrasing here), Start with a skeleton and then throw some meat on it! I had to laugh, but her words also made me want to sit down and write. Later that same day, I read an article in the NY Times by writer Alexander Stille, who describes his aunt’s response to the memoir he wrote about his family. In essence, she doesn't like his memory of her.  Stille beautifully and eloquently describes his aunt's feedback. It’s a great read:  The Body Under the Rug. 

I’ve often disliked, when reading biographies of famous people, how strenuously biographers work to sew a few unearthed facts into a compelling narrative, when maybe there is none. Emily Bronte is often defined by the single book she wrote, Wuthering Heights. Maybe she was Catherine, but perhaps she saw herself as Healthcliff, or no one, or maybe there were just tiny pieces of her in each character. Maybe the only thing she had in common with Catherine was hair color.

People often ask me how much of The Truth About Dating (The Quinn Malone series) is real. I generally joke and say all the drudgery is real and the fun parts are made up. But the truth is that the entire book is real. It’s just not all about me. The part when Quinn starts to cry because she thinks no man will ever love her is real to every person who’s ever felt that way after a break-up. If a biographer reads my book, and decides that the fear of being unloved was the driving force of my life, well, he’d have it all wrong. You can’t piece truth together from book excerpts, or even diary excerpts. When I was in second grade, pink was my favorite color and I thought my glamorous, heavily made-up music teacher was beautiful. In college I wore nearly nothing but black, no make-up, and I thought Jim Morrison was hot. Today my favorite clothing colors are brown and gray and I wear as little make-up as possible. I think my husband is pretty hot. But maybe a college roommate would say I wore bold, vivid colors at school. Maybe I’m remembering wrong. Or maybe she is.

A Chinese proverb says “The palest ink is better than the best memory.” I’ve found this to be true even ten minutes after an event. Our own ideas, perceptions, and expectations color our memoires, even as the event occurrs. That’s why eye witness testimony is so flawed. But none of this matters in writing!  Writing is for fun.  Writing is telling a good story.  Writing is about enterainment or making a reader think, or empathize, or feel empowered, or moved to tears.  Sheila Kay Adams and Alexander Stille made me mad to sit down and write!  I felt like I’d been given a really neat writing assignment, and I couldn’t wait to sit down and suss out an idea, to throw some meat on the skeleton!  I thought about their words all day yesterday, and when I woke up today, I still felt good about writing, but it took me an hour or two to remember exactly why. My memory was failing me, again.

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