For many years now, I’ve been trying to remember old stories from my childhood and about living with my two sisters and parents in the 70s and 80s in Upper Michigan, North Carolina, Southern and Northern Virginia and Iowa.

This process is difficult.

Some people seem to remember exact details about their past experiences. Not me. I hardly remember anything. What I do remember only surfaces as fuzzy fragments that I attempt to reconstruct into coherent stories. I often wonder, how much of what I do remember actually happened to me, and how much of it is based on embellished accounts provided by other family members?

When I began working on recounting and remembering, I was disheartened. What was wrong with me? How come everyone else seemed to remember so many details from their childhood? Now, after reading different accounts of remembering/not remembering/misremembering, I’ve come to realize that most people have difficulty remembering past stories. They just don’t admit or realize it. Memory is complicated and the process of storing and restoring our memories works in ways that often prevent us from accurately remembering what happened to us (or how, why, when, where and with whom). This realization makes me feel better and less alone.

Over the past month, I’ve been reminded of memory’s failures in three different accounts of misremembering:

1. Students’ inability to accurately identify who said/did what in a fake argument Mary Karr performs in class with a colleague, as described in The Art of Memoir.

2. Oliver Sack’s realization in Speak, Memory that a memory he vividly describes and remembers as his own in his memoir was actually his older brother’s.

3. Rebecca Solnit’s confrontation in  The Faraway Nearby with evidence that the photo she thought she remembered of herself in a tree was that of another family member.

Here are a few passages from these accounts that I want to remember and ruminate on:

There is, it seems, no mechanism in the mind or the brain for ensuring the truth, or at least the veridical character, of our recollections. We have no direct access to historical truth, and what we feel or assert to be true depends as much on our imagination as our senses. There is no way by which the events of the world can be directly transmitted or recorded in our brains; they are experienced and constructed in a highly subjective way, which is different in every individual to begin with, and differently reinterpreted or reexperienced whenever they are recollected.

Oliver Sacks

We, as human beings, are landed with memory systems that have fallibilities, frailties, and imperfections—but also great flexibility and creativity. Confusion over sources or indifference to them can be a paradoxical strength: if we could tag the sources of all our knowledge, we would be overwhelmed with often irrelevant information.

Indifference to source allows us to assimilate what we read, what we are told, what others say and think and write and paint, as intensely and richly as if they were primary experiences. It allows us to see and hear with other eyes and ears, to enter into other minds, to assimilate the art and science and religion of the whole culture, to enter into and contribute to the common mind, the general commonwealth of knowledge. This sort of sharing and participation, this communion, would not be possible if all our knowledge, our memories, were tagged and identified, seen as private, exclusively ours. Memory is dialogic and arises not only from direct experience but from the intercourse of many minds.

Oliver Sacks

But there are also memories you dig for: you start with a clear fix on a tiny instant, and pick at every knot until a thin thread comes undone that you can follow back through the mind’s labyrinth to other places. We’ve all interrogated ourselves—It couldn’t have been Christmas because we had shorts on in the snapshot.

Mary Karr

[Solnit discussing the 100 lbs of apricots she received from her mother’s apricot tree] I don’t recall ever eating an apricot from it before the great mounds came to me, though there is a picture of me in my twenties, my feet planted on a couple of bare boughs, pruning shears in hand, looking at ease up there. I wrote that and then went to pull the faded Polaroid out of a box and fount that actually I was standing atop a tall ladder next to the tree with something unrecognizable in my hand. It was my younger brother in the companion snapshot who was standing in the apricot tree itself with the pruning shears. Memory, even in the rest of us [in contrast to Solnit’s mother who has Alzheimers], is a shifting, fading, partial thing, a net that doesn’t catch all the fish by any means and sometimes catches butterflies that don’t exist.

Rebecca Solnit

What does it feel like to be you?

Having bookmarked it a few days ago, I started my morning by reading Alice Gregory’s book review for Sarah Manguso’s ‘Ongoingness’ in the New Yorker. Really interesting. I’ve already requested two of Manguso’s memoirs from my local library.

There’s so much to discuss in this short book review. For now, I’ll just mention the final paragraph:

One could argue that reading memoirs comes more naturally to us now than ever before. Our critical faculties and emotional voyeurism are primed as they’ve never been. Social media barrage us daily with fragmented first-person accounts of people’s lives. We have become finely tuned instruments of semiotic analysis, capable of decoding at a glance the false enthusiasm of friends, the connotations of geotags, the tangle of opinions that lie embedded in a single turn of phrase. Continuously providing updates on life for others can encourage a person to hone a sense of humor and check a sense of privilege. It can keep friendships alive that might otherwise fall victim to entropy. But what constantly self-reporting your own life does not seem to enable a person to do—at least, not yet—is to communicate to others a private sense of what it feels like to be you. With “Ongoingness,” Manguso has achieved this. In her almost psychedelic musings on time and what it means to preserve one’s own life, she has managed to transcribe an entirely interior world.

Alice Gregory on Sarah Manguso

I am eager to read Manguso’s book. I wonder, how readable is her account? How intelligible are her “psychedelic musings”? How does a private account of what it feels like to be you differ from a public one?

Addendum: April 16, 2015

While searching through my safari reading list, I found a The Rumpus interview with Sarah Manguso that I bookmarked several weeks ago. I’m adding it here, for reference:

The Rumpus Interview with Sarah Manguso

A Bad Rememberer

Note: I wrote the first part of this entry over a year ago. After finding it in the “pending” section of my posts, I decided to add onto it and post it now.

This morning I found a fitting quotation in a New Yorker interview:

When it comes to memories of that iconic type, memories that are burned into you, I have maybe ten or so from my childhood. I’m a bad rememberer of situations. I forget almost everything as soon as it happens. But when it comes to landscapes and rooms, it’s different. I think I remember every single room that I have been in from the age of seven. What I did was to place myself in those rooms, and when I started to write about them it was like unlocking a thousand small doors, all leading further into childhood. It’s all there, you know, inside us, it’s just a matter of finding the way.


This quotation really resonates with me and my feelings about remembering. The idea of finding the way to remember is significant for my Farm project. One of the reasons that I’m revisiting my archival materials and the footage that Scott and I shot over a decade ago is so that I can hopefully unlock some doors into my past.

I also like the idea of the bad rememberer. As I think about it more, all sorts of questions about remembering are popping into my head. I wonder, what does it mean to be a good rememberer? Do they remember past experiences just like they actually happened? Is that even possible? 

Since writing these statements above, I encountered a very different take on the “bad rememberer.” In an essay for Rookie Magazine, Zadie Smith embraces her bad memory and a “miasma of non-memory”:

I have the kind of brain that erases everything that passes, almost immediately, like that dustpan-and-brush dog in Disney’s Alice in Wonderland sweeping up the path as he progresses along it. I never know what I was doing on what date, or how old I was when this or that happened—and I like it that way. I feel when I am very old and my brain “goes” it won’t feel so very different from the life I live now, in this miasma of non-memory, which, though it infuriates my nearest and dearest, must suit me somehow, as I can’t seem, even by acts of will, to change it.

Zadie Smith

I like this idea of non-memory and Smith’s willingness to accept embrace it. I especially like how she links it to her fiction writing in the next paragraph of her essay:

I wonder if it isn’t obliquely connected to the way I write my fiction, in which, say, a doormat in an apartment I lived in years ago will reappear, just as it once was, that exact doormat, same warp and weft, and yet I can’t say when exactly I lived there, who I was dating or even if my own father was alive or dead at the time. Perhaps the first kind of non-memory system—the one that can’t retain dates or significant events—allows the other kind of memory system to operate, the absence of the first making space for the second, clearing a path for that whatever-it-is which seems to dart through my mind like a shy nocturnal animal, dragging back strange items like doormats, a single wilted peony, or a beloved strawberry sticker, not seen since 1986, but still shaped like a strawberry and scented like one, too.

Zadie Smith

I wonder, is this “other kind of memory system” only suitable for fiction? Why? What sort of truth/truths can we communicate by conjuring up beloved fragments of memory?

Since it’s early in the morning and I’m running out of time, I’ll leave that last question unexplained…for now. I plan to interrogate it further soon. 

on remembering, pt 2

This morning I started reading Agatha Christie’s autobiography. In the forward, she offers some great reflections on writing about one’s own life. She always says this about remembering and the past:

the past, the memories and realities that are the bedrock of one’s present life, brought back suddenly by a scent, the shape of a hill, an old song—some triviality that makes one suddenly say ‘I remember…’ with a peculiar and quite unexplainable pleasure. This is one of the compensations that age brings, and certainly a very enjoyable one—to remember.