Everyone knows how memory dims and darkens with time. Yesterday I began writing about a memory from the summer after first grade when I felt “outside the circle.” I'd written about this incident before, but decided to begin fresh. After five paragraphs I could see no further benefit in continuing the rewrite and tracked down a version from five years ago, intending to graft in some of that material.
When I read the earlier story, my jaw dropped. The theme was the same, the other main character was the same, but circumstances were quite different. Yesterday's story begins as I approach a cluster of kids that included Carol (the girl across the street) and half a dozen neighborhood boys. In the earlier version, Carol was jumping rope alone in front of her house.
Which is real? Has my memory changed that much in five years? Which version should I use?
As I closely examine the versions, slight differences begin to emerge. In the jump rope version, Carol does invite me to play, in an off-handed way. I do mention that Tom, the boy our age who lives in the other end of her duplex, won’t play with me. In yesterday's memory and story, I arrive as Tom finishes telling a dirty joke. I hear only the ensuing laughter. An older boy tells me I shouldn’t have been listening (I wasn’t!), and all the boys run off, leaving me to play with Carol.
In both cases I felt awkward and uncertain. Both my mother and I had only our younger sisters to play with before we began school, and we both lacked social savvy. I was desperate to learn. The jump rope story works well to emphasize that awkwardness. The second story works better for emphasizing my discomfort with groups, my feeling of being on the fraying fringe of things.
I’ve concluded that two memories are involved and that both memories are real – as real as any memory can be. As I further refine my theme, I believe the choice of which story to use will become apparent. Or I may use both in a longer version.
The important point for now is that both memories are tattered and faded, dark fragments of the moment. The “actual facts” of what “really” happened are only faintly discernible. The “truth” of the encounters lies in emotional memory. That’s where the story is. Knowing the specific date, time of day, color of Carol’s hair, or names of the boys serves no purpose. I don’t care about those myself!
I shall include only details directly relevant to the story such as:
- The comforting feel of summer sun on my shoulders and espresso-brown hair.
- The view from my vantage point in front of my house, eighteen stair steps above the street and two hundred feet away.
- Feeling sad, alone and "different" as I watched.
- Feeling confused and clueless about how to join Carol or the group.
- Feeling awed by the beautifully decorated bedroom she had to herself.
Details like this form the reality of memories. My challenge is to develop brightly lit scenes that crisply convey this sense of loneliness and longing — the core truth of both memories and countless later incidents.
Write now: Without looking back, rewrite an emotional memory you wrote about at least a year ago (preferably much longer) in a story or journal. Don't look back before you write, but compare versions when you're done. Make note of differences and dig for those golden key emotions underlying the memory. Follow their trail through the years.
Photo credit: Dan Sakamoto