by Graham Strong
Memory is flawed and unreliable. No event can truly be remembered in precise detail – and even retelling the memory tends to change it.
That was the central theme of Denise Chong’s workshop “Writing Memory – Writing Truth” which she presented on May 13, 2017 at Mary JL Black Library. Chong, who has written four non-fiction books and the highly anthologized “Being Canadian” speech from 1995, explained to a packed room why the slipperiness of memory is important for both fiction and non-fiction writers to realize.
To illustrate this, Chong related a phenomenon she experienced when writing The Girl in the Picture. The book tells the story of Kim Phuc and the famous image of her when she was nine, running naked away from a napalm attack during the Vietnam War. Chong tracked down the reporters who were there that day to get their version of the story. Although they all witnessed the same bomb drop – and all from essentially the same vantage point – they all described it completely differently.
Chong gave us an exercise in our own memories. She asked us to write down a fairly easy one – a memory from that morning before the workshop. She drew out more details from some, and showed us that memory is a sensory experience. The sound of pills hitting the table. The feel of the cold tap in the bathroom. The smell of horses in their stalls during feedings. We realized that telling the story was changing it.
“A memory is most pristine when it's taken to the grave. The moment it's shared, it is contaminated,” Chong said.
In another exercise, we described a person in our lives in a progressive series of steps. We started with their physical appearance, but then moved into their gestures and personality, and delved deeper into why their gestures and posture and personalities evolved – why they did what they did. The point of the exercise was that we can find greater truths in these vignettes than through physical description alone. It’s an excellent demonstration of how to develop characters, or in the case of real people in a non-fiction book, how to convey their personalities.
Other aspects of the workshop included how to collect memories, where to look for them, and how to coax them out. Chong talked about using props such as the time she created a layout of the napalm attack with toys for the journalists to play out their memories of that moment. She gave other tips for getting to the truth including talking to others of the period to get their sense of what the world was like then – even if there isn’t a direct relation to the story, it helps give the story context. Sometimes that’s the only way to gather the details.
"If a person dies with their memories, we need to find the living link,” she said.
Chong revealed different methods of getting people to open up and to start talking about their deepest – and perhaps secret – memories. Most important is connecting with them and putting them at ease. People like Kim Phuc have been asked questions all their lives and might have a put up a barrier.
Chong said that the day Phuc came to their interview session in short sleeves (revealing the horrific burn scars on her arm) she knew the barrier was down. Chong also talked about how for her first book, The Concubine’s Children, she took her mother out to eat because her mother loves to eat and it was a way to probe her senses. Another way Chong triggered her mother’s memories was to take her to locations from her past. Listening to her mother talk to old friends or simply talking while they drove around in the car helped as well.
Research is especially important because it helps you raise a flag if something seems out of place, either by trick of memory or (as she warned) by people who for many reasons do not want to tell the truth. Sometimes timelines get confused, so if you can find any definitive ways of pinpointing exactly when a story happened, it can help clarify memories.
One workshop participant asked the question that is in every writer’s mind: had she worried about a subject of hers telling her that she got it wrong? Chong related one incident in which the subject objected to the word “several” instead of “three” along with other similar seemingly minor quibbles that nonetheless were important points to the interviewee. Another question was about violating the privacy of someone after they have died. Chong said the writer can tell the story by being as truthful as possible and by showing “human temperament in all its dimensions”.
The role of the writer in retrieving memories is to mediate the tension between their need to have the interviewee look back and to remember while that person wants to move on and to forget. Paradoxically, to be effective, the writer must find a stance between intimacy and distance, attachment and detachment, trust and skepticism. It can be a difficult line to walk and writers need to “bring an artfulness to the role,” Chong said.
In the end, it comes down to this: if memories can’t be trusted, the stories related to those memories demand extra scrutiny. Through research, talking with other people, and tricking the mind to dig down deeper, we can get closer to the true story. Our jobs as writers, especially non-fiction writers, is to mine as much information as possible, then write it down in an artful way to compile a version that’s as close as to the facts as possible.
Graham Strong is a full-time freelance marketing writer, journalist, and ghostwriter and has been a writer his entire life. Graham is a former Editor-in-Chief of Argus, the Student Newspaper of Lakehead University, and helped transition it into one of the first digitally produced newspapers in North America. Graham won an Honourable Mention in NOWW’s first writing contest in 1998 for his short story Hat Trick. Professionally, Graham provides marketing writing services to businesses and organizations around the world. He also writes for several news outlets including the Sudbury Mining Solutions Journal and the Northern Ontario Medical Journal, and has written for Canadian Press. In his spare time he is writing his first novel. Graham lives in Thunder Bay with local potter Noël Keag and their three incredible sons. His favourite writers are Paul Quarrington, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Hunter S. Thompson.