Tuesday, November 8, 2005

Memory as fiction

I saw her in the shower. (And, no, the Trout has not stooped to stalking coeds in their dorms.) Instead it was the apparition, that delicate afterimage of the young woman I loved in the last weeks of my childhood. I was wiping the steam from my shower door this morning when I saw her distorted visage through the melted glass. She haunts me relentlessly. She's appeared with regularity after each of my divorces, and also when the marriages in question were going badly, though I don't know what it means that she's returning to me now. My doctor fussed over my blood pressure during my last visit, so perhaps I'm nearing the end of the voyage.

In any event, this has all made me realize that when I write about events from more than half a lifetime ago, I know I'm not doing so as a journalist. Memory distorts, filters and shapes the past the same way melty shower door glass does ghosts. In essence, memory--paired with time--becomes true fiction. All good memoir is fiction. All bad memoir is a laundry list punctuated by self-congratulation.

I'm reminded of a student from one of my first workshops years ago around the time my novels stopped selling. This fellow was a rock 'n roller, with frizzy hair and decked in beads and baubles. He wore a flannel work shirt with the sleeves cut off. There was a wolf tattoo on one arm, and a skull and crossed bones on the other. I told the students to think back to their childhoods and fish out an image. Then see that image again on paper, telling it as if they're imagining it for the first time. They were given twenty minutes to write, and then asked to read. After each reading, there was a brief discussion (bad idea). I still vaguely remember this young man's opening: "I stand on the edge of the bay. The lights on the boats are like stars and there is no horizon..." When he finished, a brash girl...the sort to garner perfect grades through the force of her will and dominate classroom discussions...raised her hand.

Girl: I don't like it. It's weak.

Trout: How's so?

Girl: It doesn't really follow the assignment. It doesn't sound like a memory, it sounds like a made-up story.

Trout: Ahhh.

Of course, that girl's own scene started something like this: "It was the night of the big slumber party..." Need I say more? I suppose that some people will never understand fiction (or memory). And it's unfortunate, for me anyway, that so many of these people find their way into creative writing classes.

Incidentally, the young fellow from the workshop cut his hair, published three novels, and now lives in Shiprock where he works with a Native American youth violence program. I still receive his letters and enjoy them immensely.

No comments: