Memory & Truth, Or My Imaginary Book Boyfriend of Sixth Grade

I’ve ranted about this whole memory-isn’t-real thing before.  It blew my mind then and it continues to set off miniature mushroom clouds of awe inside my brain when I circle back to the realization that every time we pull up a memory we are actively imagining it into being.  (What kind of damage are all of those awe-explosions doing to the insides of my brain, I wonder?) But that’s not the real question that I want to ask.  What I want to know is this: what makes a reading experience true for you?  What makes a memory true at all for that matter?

By: R. Clucas

By: R. Clucas

Whoa, you say.  That’s some heavy philosophical stuff for a Monday.

            In grade six, I was a loner kid.  Naturally, I read a whole lot of fiction and as a result, I found some pretty cool friends in all of those fictional characters.  My favourite book of all time was Anne of Green Gables.  I’m sure the prose was excellent.  The plot grabbed my attention too.  But what kept on bringing me back to this particular book was entirely different.

            Confession: my first crush was on Gilbert Blythe from Lucy Maude Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables.  Alongside Anne, I noticed his dark, curly hair, his hazel eyes and headstrong nature.  He was the cutest, most awesome human being who ever lived to grade six Lauren.  Except, of course, for the fact that he never really existed in the first place.  (Don’t worry, I got over him.  I’m happily married now to an awesome guy who is way cuter).  Shhh! Don’t tell my book boyfriend!

book boyfriend

            But here’s the thing that gets me.  At the time, my pre-pubescent little mind was all a flutter with my fabulous book boyfriend, because he felt so real.  What made that experience real for me? Like any great read, the emotional payoff of any story is in the details.  It happens when we are able to hover in the moment, see the sun dapple the ground where our book boyfriend sits and feel the thick, sweet lavender wafting on the breeze.  The way that same breeze lifts up the fringe of his slightly wet hair, the corner of his shirt…

Okay, you get the picture.

It’s real, because we get to see all of the details.  Writing to create a shared memory that holds emotional resonance is a strange phenomenon.  (How many other little girls were dating my book boyfriend at the same time as me, for example?) Besides that point, there is also the notion that when we write down a story—whether it be pure fiction or memory distilled on the page, we are engaging in the act of fiction writing simply because there is no way to create a purely true memory.  As soon as the true moment passes, that moment is gone.  When we recall it again, it is actually a new memory that we call into being.  So if we consider our experiences reading fiction, can it be that it is in some way pleasing because when we return to the moments on the page, they are fixed, yet detailed just as finely as a real, lived moment?  There is the guarantee of a moment in time that lives forever just as it was intended without all of the messy re-imagined details.  Maybe this is why fiction is so enjoyable?  It’s predictable, sort of, but also manufactured to feel true.

What about cultures that don’t champion the written word the way we do in ours?  How do those cultures perceive truth, memory and story?  As a writer, I think that this idea is kind of freeing when you realize that truth or memory isn’t fixed in any way.  When I write something, I am in the moment and I experience all of the details of the scene as if it were true.  In a sense, for that moment, fiction becomes truth.  As a reader, the same is true.  Why else would I have a book boyfriend, am I right?  Once again, I return to the phrase: truth is stranger than fiction.  Is it?  How can truth be stranger than fiction if, in fact, a remembered truth is itself fiction?

Have you ever had a book boyfriend (or girlfriend?)  What makes an experience for you more real than others? What makes the stories that you love to read seem real to you?

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Amateur Hair Cutting and Other Bad Decisions

One balmy evening many years ago, my husband was writing a paper.  It was late and the deadline was fast approaching.  His dorm room, piled high with assorted laundry and schoolbooks was feeling more like a dirty sauna than a place to be responsible and finish homework.  As he stared at the blank, jeering white page of his word document, an idea began to form in his overheated mind.  It was more of a question, really.

What if?

On one precarious pile of textbooks sat our friend’s electric clippers.  When my husband tells this story, he claims that the room must have been one hundred degrees; that his entire head was sweating.

Another question came to mind, then.  Just how hard was it to cut hair anyway?

He reasoned that if he just shaved off the sides of his long, shaggy hair, the sweating would stop.  So he did it.  He shaved them off.  And he knew that he had made a mistake.

Bad choices.  It’s not something we like to talk about.  Or if we do, they take on a light-hearted “it’s funny now” kind of tone.  I could tell you about any number of bad decisions that I have made—befriending a rabid cat, moving to New Zealand without any lined up job or accommodation…deciding to go out for a late night walk in London, England by myself…bad choices are woven into the fabric of all of the best narratives that I tell.

But the thing is—the thing that makes bad choices so damn good to tell and re-tell in our own personal narratives—is that they make for some interesting stories.

When I think about all of my favourite books it always involves the hero or heroine making a cringe-worthy decision.  If Harry had never snuck out of his dorm room, perhaps J.K. Rowling’s brilliant series of Harry Potter books would not have been so exciting to read.  If Katniss had played it safe and let her sister go to The Hunger Games after all it would likely be a boring and succinct story.

I guess what I’m saying is this: bad decisions make good fiction.

Note: because my husband has destroyed all photographic evidence of his terrible hair cut, I present to you an image of a shaved poodle.  From what I can remember, it looks about the same anyway.

By: Template 911

By: Template 911

Why Truth Really is Stranger than Fiction, Or How I Won a Zombie-Ninja Fight

See? Zombie ninjas do exist.

When I remember the run that I went on yesterday afternoon, I can still feel the burn of snow as it blows like a sheet of sandpaper in my face and the heart-pounding heave of my heart as  it feels like it might just give up at any second.  I remember the run taking forever, because it totally did.  There were so many streets that we ran down that by the end, when I hobbled up the stone path to my front door and said “Screw this.  Let’s make new New Year’s resolutions to get all fat and lazy,” Matt laughed at me and said “It’s only been twenty minutes.”

Okay, so I might have remembered the run a little differently.

Memory is a funny thing. Prior to the run of doom, I was listening to a podcast from Radiolab.org on memory and imagination.  Apparently, neuroscientists have discovered that the two are closely linked in the brain so that every time we recall a memory it is being altered by the part in our brain that operates the imagination–meaning all of your memories are totally wrong.  Or at least kind of messed up.

As  a fiction writer, this makes for some interesting writing.  It’s always my goal to try and reach those deep inner truths that make scenes come alive, but this notion that our memories are always being re-remembered from an imaginative perspective based on our current situation makes for some difficult discoveries in the way of truth.  How can you find truth when the truth that you remember is kind of fiction?

Perhaps, when whoever said “truth is stranger than fiction,” what they really meant was “our memories are all kind of screwy anyway, so let’s just call it some damn good fiction and leave it at that.”

Anyway.  I’ve decided to take this whole memory-and-imagination-are-kind-of-the-same-thing-thing to mean that when I write my memoir I can totally lie and say that I was in a huge ninja fight with all sorts of zombies and ninjas instead of just having had surgery.  True story.

On a more realistic note (if one can even claim that this exists on the topic), I’m starting to think that writing with truth means writing the true feelings that emerge out of a situation and not necessarily the details that really happened.