In a recent interview with the torontoist.com Canadian Poet Peter Norman discussing his new collection of poems All the Gates of the Theme Park spoke of an issue he faced in writing poems:
"Memory is deceptive; I imagine we all rearrange our histories to fit some sort of narrative. Retelling distorts things further. I have a few stock anecdotes—the time I inadvertently sat on a piece of art in a gallery; the time the cops mistook me for an armed robber—and these have probably mutated to become sleeker or funnier, while memory scrambles along behind, modifying itself to match the tale….I distrust the precision of memory and anecdote…”
Grappling with issues of truth and memory is a conundrum faced by many memoirists and family historians.
Looking backwards, we find details of events missing. We’ve heard Uncle Harry tell stories about his exploits as a fisherman or Grandma’s tales of the life during the Great Depression enough times to know that they have been improved upon over the years.
What’s our obligation in creating a memoir or family history? Are we documenting history or telling a good story? Both, I hope.
There are historical facts that are part of any life story. But they are not the whole story. They are certainly seldom, if ever, the most interesting part. When we write a memoir or family history, we are trying to make sense of the past and the people (including our earlier selves) who lived in it. That means looking backwards to impose an order on events that might not have been evident to the person who was experiencing them. Some we may arrange events into an order that makes more sense. We may decide that some things which in fact happened actually detract from the stories flow and should be left out.
One of the purposes of a memoir or family history is to help readers come to know the people about whom they were written? What kind of people were they? What made them unique? The stories they told, no matter how far they may stray from what the facts appear to be, provide an insight into their character and personality in a way that a scrupulous historical documentation never could. In trying to capture our life story or that of our family, we must recognize that it’s as important to capture the family lore and the way our ancestors remember it as it is to get the facts straight.
Click here to read the full interview with Peter Norman