“Getting It Right,” by Louise DeSalvo

April 27, 2010

Memoir is about memory.  Right?  So all we need to do when we write is write what we remember.

So what if, when we’re writing an incident from our lives, we remember something, and we’re not sure about a few specific details.  I’m talking about facts, here.  Not about our recollection, say, of what happened the first time we met someone.  (Two people are bound to have different memories of the same occurrence.  Memory is about our recollection of the event.  And whether we choose to check with someone else about their recollection of what happened seems to me to be a matter of individual choice, so long as we’re not falsifying what we remember.  We’re not writing autobiography; we’re writing memoir.)

I recently wrote a scene describing how, when I was a teenager, I swam across Lake George while my father accompanied me in a rowboat.  As I recalled, the swim was long – say, about two miles.  But I didn’t know precisely how long it was.  I knew almost exactly where I entered the lake (just above Bolton Landing where my family was staying).  And I remember my father telling me just how deep the lake was before I swam across it, which, I can assure you, did nothing to ease my terror.  I wanted to include the number of miles I swam in the piece.  I wanted, too, to include a detail about my terror at swimming in such a deep body of water.  I wanted to put the reader into that moment and to describe it in present tense.

So…Let me put the question to you that I put to myself.  (And you can supply, here, a similar question from your own work.)  When I write or rewrite that scene, do I look up precisely how wide Lake George is just above Bolton Landing?  How deep the lake is?  Or do I stick with memory and say that I swam about two miles and that I was afraid of swimming in such deep water and had a fantasy of drowning without specifying how deep the lake’s depth?

This illustrates a decision memoirists have to make all the time.  Memoir is about memory.  Right?  But if we remember something that happened, and we can’t remember precise details – like the width and depth of Lake George – what should we do? Work from memory?  Elide the facts?  Fudge it?

In my own writing practice, I make a habit of checking facts like these on the Internet and in my library of reference books.  I use several sources to make sure the information is correct.  I prefer official Internet sites (Lake George has one, for example) to, say, Wikipedia or personal sites which are often filled with errors.

Some might say that this is “cheating,” that I’m pretending to remember something I haven’t remembered precisely.  Why not write what I remember?  Why not write, “I swam far.”  Or write, “I swam about two miles.”

Well…First of all, there are people who live on Lake George, who know exactly how deep the lake is and how wide it is just above Bolton Landing.  If I write what I remember and I’m wrong, then my credibility as a memoirist is shattered.  And if I write vaguely – “far,” “about two miles” – rather than the precision of “two miles” – I believe that the authenticity of my memoir suffers.  I was there; I should know; I knew then; I don’t quite remember now.

This is a paradox, surely.  That the authenticity of a memoir sometimes depends upon a memoirist checking the facts of a memory by doing research.  In the scene I describe, I wanted to write precisely the number of miles I swam, and state the depth of the lake.  I was there; at the time, I knew both the lake’s depth and the width; my father knew them and had told me.  So, in my writing practice, in instances like this, I do research to authenticate the experience I’m describing by making sure I get the facts right, that Lake George is one mile wide just north of Bolton Landing, and that it’s two hundred feet deep at its deepest part.

Yes, I’m working from memory to write the experience.  But I’m working with memory to determine what research I need to do to recreate a past experience.  Note my emphasis on the word “recreate” because what I want to do is not merely to retell the experience, but to write it in a way that tells the past as if it were occurring right now.

This precision becomes even more necessary when we write, as I often do, in the present tense, one I love to employ to put the reader “there.”  I don’t use it all the time, but I use it often.  When we – if we – write scenes in the present tense, it’s essential that our details replicate what we knew at the time.

Let me show you the difference between writing a scene in the past tense and writing it in the present tense.

If I write in the past tense, I can be less precise.  I can say: “I couldn’t get it out of my mind that the lake was very deep.  That, if I went down, currents would carry my body into Lake Champlain.”  But if I write in the present, I must say, “I can’t get it out of my mind that the lake is two hundred feet deep here, maybe more.  That if I go down, currents will carry my body through falls and chutes and rapids into Lake Champlain.”

I recently read an interview with Craig Robinson, Michelle Obama’s brother, about his memoir, A Game of Character. He’s an athletic coach (and, incidentally, earns more money than Barack Obama’s salary as president).  The interviewer pointed out that, in his memoir, Robinson incorrectly stated that Princeton was the first capital of the United States of America.  (In fact, Princeton was the second “capital” under the Articles of Confederation.)  With the Internet, this kind of statement is easily verified.  Why neither Robinson nor his editors caught it is anybody’s guess.  In the interview, Robinson said that he was so awed by Princeton, that he felt as if it had been the first capital of the United States.  Not good enough, the interviewer indicated.

Perhaps not when we start writing, but surely by the time we’re finished, I believe we have an obligation to get the facts right.  To spell all the names in our work correctly – place names, names of churches, names of movies, names of characters in movies, names of TV shows.    Believe it or not, our memories of facts like these are fallible.  (Was it “Buckeroo Banzi” or “The Adventures of Buckeroo Banzai”?  It was “The Adventures of Buckeroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension.”)  And if we get our facts wrong, our readers may wonder what else we got wrong.

When I started writing, this was extraordinarily time consuming.  You had to go to a library; you had to find the appropriate reference book; you had to hope that you could find the answer to your questions.  Hours and hours and hours of time it took to learn what we can learn in a few seconds or minutes, now, on the Internet.

Here’s an example about a fact I had to get right from my memoir Vertigo.

In Vertigo, I described how I sat on the steps of my grammar school waiting for my mother to pick me up from school.  As I recalled, the steps were cold and hard, and I remembered that my backside felt cold sitting on those steps.  But I had no definitive memory of what those steps were made of.  Were they concrete?  Stone?  Wood?  Was I cold because the steps were cold or because I was cold?

In an early draft of that scene, I wrote that the steps were concrete.  But every time I worked my way through that scene again, I worried that I was getting it wrong.  Until finally, I decided to drive to Hoboken (where the school is still standing although now, I think, it might have been turned, like so much else in Hoboken, into a condominium), to see those steps.  The steps were clearly stone, not concrete.  But then I realized the steps might have been rebuilt since the 1940s when I went to school there so I had to find out whether there had been any renovations to them since the 1940s.  And I learned that, no, the steps when I saw them were as they were back then.

So I was able to write the following sentence in a chapter of Vertigo called “Finding My Way”: “I sit anxiously outside school on the stone steps that lead up to the huge wooden front door, waiting for my mother to pick me up….”

Hours of worry and a trip to Hoboken and a series of conversations with the nuns at the school for one word.  And all for that one word: stone.

In that memoir, too, I describe my experience seeing Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo for the first time.  I wrote that scene from memory in its earliest drafts.  Then I wondered whether my recollection was correct.  And so I decided to buy a copy of the film (harder when I was writing Vertigo than it is now) and to screen it to check my memory of the events in the film.

Although my memory of the film was accurate, I used details from that screening (and others) to flesh out my response to the film as a teenager.  For example, I remembered that, as a teenager, I responded viscerally to the spirals of color at the beginning of the film: I had never seen anything like this opening before and it was dizzying.  But I couldn’t remember what the colors were.  In a draft I wrote before seeing the film, I wrote about the spirals of color and their effect on me.  After seeing the film, I inserted that the swirls of color were “red, blue, green, gold.”  Again, I used memory to create the scene.  And I did research – viewing the film – to fill in specific details about the colors of the spirals that I couldn’t recollect.  But because I knew what the colors were back then, and because I wrote the scene in the present tense, I wanted that detail to be precise and to be correct.  Once again, I had a choice to make.  I could have written swirls of “bright colors.”  But that wasn’t good enough for me.  My teenaged self had known precisely what those colors were, and so I did some research to recreate that visceral experience.  What I couldn’t – wouldn’t – do was fudge what the colors were – someone out there would know precisely what they were.  What I couldn’t – wouldn’t – do was describe the colors if I hadn’t responded to them as a teenager.

This work, I save for revision.  I do it when I work through my manuscript word by word, line by line.  Sometimes my research opens a window into something I’ve forgotten.  That’s a delicious moment.  And it happened when I learned about the width of Lake George.  I remembered wanting to stop my swim, to climb into the rowboat with my father.  I remembered what my father did to prevent me from climbing into that rowboat.  Not a pleasant memory.  But it “exploded” the scene for me.  And it emerged because I wanted to get something seemingly insignificant right.

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2 Responses to ““Getting It Right,” by Louise DeSalvo”

  1. Edi Giunta Says:

    Louise, I love how you use examples from your work. The work that one word requires: so humbling. I have shared this post with my daughter, who has been working on a memoir piece, and will certainly ask my students to read it when I teach memoir next fall.


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