Writing about memory
I write a lot about memories. As a subject they are intensely fascinating.
For example- what is your earliest memory?
Not little wisps of memory that could be stories adults told you.
A core memory. One you can almost smell/taste/feel the world around you at the time the memory was made.
Is it receiving a beloved toy?
A birthday party with your favorite family member?
Your first day of school or the first friend you ever made?
The first time you fell down and skinned your knee?
What you remember says a lot about what you intrinsically value.
If your earliest memory is a toy- is it one that was given to you by a family member you adore? If so, you're sentimental.
If that same toy was special because it was the hot toy that year and you got one while your friends didn't? You're materialistic (and not a great friend).
I usually tell people happy early memories as my earliest memory.
One version I tell: my dad coming home from the army base when we lived in Hawaii. I was laying on the couch watching Sesame Street and he snuck up behind me and ambush tickled me. I laughed until I cried.
Another version: my dad taking me to the ocean for the first time. He walked me into the warm waves intending to teach me to swim. There were little silvery fish in the water close to the shore and one started nibbling on my toes. I ran out of the surf shrieking that the fish was trying to eat my foot. (I've never really learned to swim since that day. While I can make it across the pool with effort, I prefer my feet touching the bottom of the pool at all times.)
A third version: a neighbor in Georgia feeding me grits and sweet tea for the first time.
The thing all those memories have in common is they're happy memories. They're the kind of memories that make people smile and laugh.
I can't tell a joke to save my life (I always start giggling halfway through). But give me a few minutes to tell a story... I can add enough verbal color to make my audience hysterically laugh. I did theater in high school and while I wasn't a good actress (sorry to Betsy, my favorite director, but it's true), people remembered my characters. They'd quote them at me for weeks after each show because the way I said my lines was so entertaining. I'm funny and no matter what else I do in my life, I love to make people laugh.
If I'm being honest though, none of those memories meet the definition of a core memory I mentioned above. They're fuzzy. Half the details come from things others have told me- where I lived or the way I reacted at the time. They're the kind of memories you have while looking at a polaroid from a day you don't remember. One which makes you tell yourself a story about why the picture was special enough to save in a box.
My earliest real memory did happen while we lived in Hawaii- that part is true. But rather than a happy memory its one which left my sister with a semi-permanent injury.
I won't get into the nitty gritty of the memory. In summary: my sister once climbed onto the kitchen countertop and drank half a bottle of rubbing alcohol my careless mother left sitting out and open. At the time my sister was three and I was four. When I tried to get my mother's attention to stop my sister from drinking the alcohol, my mother swatted me away like a bothersome fly.
I'm almost 40 and I still remember every moment of that day when I smell rubbing alcohol. Such is the power of core memories- they stick with you forever.
What does my core memory say about me? That sometimes I focus on the bad to the exclusion of the good? Or that I prioritize helping others to the detriment of myself? Maybe both.
When it comes to characters we put into our books, what they remember is as important to who they are as a person as what they forget.
Memories in general are difficult to rely on. Not only because the attached emotions are sometimes strong enough to bring us to our knees, but because they're malleable. With distance from any event, it's easy to forget the details. When we forget the details it's easy for a sufficiently motivated person to insert fake information into our memories if they choose to do so.
There has been a recent popularization of the term gaslighting. By now you're probably aware of the origin of the term (a movie about a man playing with his wife's memories to make her feel crazy), but as a psychological concept it's lost some of its intended meaning.
People often use it as a rebuttal any time someone has a different remembrance of an event from their own. But just because someone's memory of an event is different than our own does not mean they're trying to insert false memories.
Each of us has a different perspective when we remember an event. Talk to a football player, a cheerleader, a fan, and a member of the school band about a particular football game and none of their memories will completely match.
All of their memories might be accurate, but only accurate to what they experienced. The true events of the game are likely a mixture of everything they each remember mixed together.
The explanation of gaslighting from psychology today is particularly telling. "Gaslighting is an insidious form of manipulation and psychological control. Victims of gaslighting are deliberately and systematically fed false information that leads them to question what they know to be true, often about themselves. They may end up doubting their memory, their perception, and even their sanity. Over time, a gaslighter’s manipulations can grow more complex and potent, making it increasingly difficult for the victim to see the truth."
The popularity of the term gaslighting in recent years, especially in media and literature, feels a bit chicken and the egg. Did the term become popular with the general public because of the manipulation tactics deployed as election and political power strategies and then spread to the media? Or did popular fiction propel the term back into the public consciousness and make the manipulation of our nations beliefs more easily spotted?
The Girl On the Train by Paula Hawkins was released in January of 2015. Immensely popular, it got a film adaptation that released in October 2016 (a relatively short period of time for Hollywood). The main character in the book is the classic unreliable narrator. Rachel is an alcoholic who suffers from frequent blackouts. She lies constantly to others- about her job or lack thereof, about what she did during the day- and to herself.
Rachel becomes obsessed with a woman she sees from the train window as she rides into the city for the job she no longer has (all so she can keep up appearances). This obsession leads her to inserting herself into this woman's life after she goes missing.
That this woman lives so near Rachel's ex-husband is obviously another motivator to us, the reader. But to Rachel it's something she barely seems to consider at first. Her sole focus is to find the missing Megan. But the more she digs into the woman's life, the more she's forced to inspect her own spotty memory about what led up to the dissolution of her marriage and her drinking problem.
Although she doesn't use the term gaslighting in the book, it turns out that is exactly what Rachel's ex-husband did to her during their entire marriage. He'd lie to her about what happened the day before, the night before, the hour before until she no longer knew what was real and what was fake. She believed the physical threats and abuse in the household were not done at the hands of her ex-husband to her but that she had been the abusive one.
As with anything in literature, once one book theme or character type becomes popular, a slew of books and media will come out with similar themes or character types. Think of television and the waves of police procedurals and crime scene investigations with a quirky in-lab character (CSI, NCIS, Bones), zombies (The Walking Dead, Z Nation), vampires (True Blood, The Vampire Diaries), and financially beleaguered parent resorts to drug dealing to support their family (Weeds, Breaking Bad).
Had these shows come out decades apart they might not have enjoyed as much success as they did- there is some value in feeding your audience something similar to what they already enjoyed.
If your audience loves cozy mysteries about a cat solving crimes you could give them a mystery about a dog solving crimes instead. They'd likely find the new book enjoyable. You might fail and lose a reader if you follow that up by giving them a book where body parts start washing up on the beach. A lot of readers like what is familiar to them.
Search "books about gaslighting" on Amazon or Goodreads (or really any platform with books) and the results pour in. Books about the unreliability of memory are a hot commodity in the last decade. I've added a list in the links below, but that list only scratches the surface of the popularity of this theme in books.
Because something is popular now doesn't mean it will always be popular. However, just because something might not always be popular doesn't mean you shouldn't write the book.
The novel I've been working on since November of 2022 deals a lot with memory and the ways we let stronger personalities fill in the blanks.
In Down At the Lake a group of friends goes to the lake and one of them doesn't make it back and they believe he drowned in the lake. His girlfriend, who wasn't on the trip, is told this same story by all of the friends and believes it for over a decade... until his body is revealed by lowering water levels and there is a gunshot wound in his forehead.
What each character remembers a decade later is remarkably similar to what they remembered right after the disappearance. So similar, in fact, that it's obvious their memories are lies they made up together and have repeated often enough to believe them as truth.
One of the hardest things for me when writing about memory is the urge to clear the air. To have each character come clean right away so the story can rush on to the conclusion. If I am nothing else, I am impatient. And I'm not alone- a common response to the miscommunication trope is that "ugh, they should just talk to each other and they could've solved this mystery and moved on with their day."
This response is common.... and completely misses the way humans actually interact. Take it from me, it's really easy to let a miscommunication/manipulation change your life because you're too scared or angry to talk to another person.
How your character remembers is important too. Not every person remembers events with cinema quality viewing and surround sound.
I tend to remember first what I was wearing, followed by who was there, where it happened, then the event itself (complete with scent and textures), before allowing myself to remember the emotion involved.
Some people can't picture what they were wearing or where it happened, but the emotion of the event comes through loud and clear. Others literally can't picture what happened but remember what was said with perfect clarity.
When writing it's important to consider not only what your character remembers but how they remember. And to consider what they says about them as a person.
When it comes to the characters in my novel, I'm still figuring it out. But when it comes to writing about their memories, I'm enjoying the journey.