Saturday, January 24, 2015

The Relativity of Memory

“A man tells his stories so many times that he becomes his stories. They live on after him, and, in that way, he becomes immortal.”
 ~Big Fish

In fits and starts, I’ve been plowing through the writing of my PCT memoir. I’ll abandon it for days as I’m caught up in other activities, then sit down and pound out 7,000 words in a sitting (which only covers two to four days’ worth of events). Every time I think I’m done with everything I want to say, I remember another important detail, especially in regards to people. While in the experience of the trail, it was difficult to keep track of everyone we met, since we never knew who we’d see again. As a result, I find myself scrambling to try to remember when and how we met so-and-so.

Writing this account has posed a greater challenge than any other travel memoir I’ve written, and not just because of the length, or the fact that I’m writing it in a chunk after the fact, rather than in bits as I go along. The hardest part is that, since I shared this trip with my husband, I’ve become acutely aware of the relativity of memory.

More than once, Zach has pointed out that something I’ve written is in the wrong order. And then our conversation goes something like this:

We saw a lot of cows on trail.
Zach: “We met Starman on the first day, remember?”

Lisa: “No, it was the second.”

“I’m pretty sure it was the first.”

“Remember, we were going through that area with the bunch of cows and the scrub and the pipe gates and we got close to the cows?”

“Yeah, but that was the second time we met him. We’d met him the day before, going up that one mountain.”

“I don’t remember that!”

“I’m pretty sure…”

And on we go. It’s frustrating to think that my memory is fallible. And it’s more than a little intimidating to realize that as I put this memoir into words, my memories are superseded by my written stories. Memories aren’t actual recollections of events; they are stories we tell ourselves over and over. In the end, when it’s all written, my words will stand as a record of what happened, and we probably won’t remember anything else. By telling stories about our trip, I’m affecting our perception of reality.

This probably wouldn’t bother people who believe that life and truth are relative, but I believe in rock-solid absolutes, so this kind of stuff makes me uncomfortable. I want to be able to tell our story exactly as it happened. Sure, my experience will color the way I perceived the events, but I want the events themselves to be accurate. And it drives me nuts that I can’t always do that.

In the end, I do the best I can. I try to write the facts as accurately as possible, and try to keep the artistic license to a minimum. For the first time, the weight of what I’m doing is heavy on me. The stories we tell matter. 

I’m just thankful that my record-keeping isn’t the standard of reality— that, no matter how I perceive reality, I don’t change it. I’m thankful there’s a God who keeps track of everything that happens, and that His story is a reality that never fades from His memory.


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