The Power of Memory in Your Story

bokeh-1123696_1920“Memories light the corners of my mind
Misty water-colored memories of the way we were”
-The Way We Were

Memories are interesting. They’re our own little personal home videos of what’s happened in our life. Except, unlike home videos, memories aren’t accurate. They’re influenced by our desires, our mood, our feelings about the situation, and even suggestion. It’s the reason eye-witness testimony, while often the most powerful, is also often the most wrong.

The other day, my son and I had the following conversation:

Him: Remember that time I choked on the bacon.
Me: No
Him: Yeah, I was choking on it and you said, “Dude, either spit it out or die.”

Now, this never happened. Yes, the conversation happened. However, the incident he described did not happen. At no time while my child was choking (on bacon or anything else) did I say, “either spit it out or die.” I’m not entirely sure how he came up with this memory. I just know it is not true. There are some instances when I let my children know, “I don’t have time for this crap right now.” But, choking is not one of those times.

We don’t have video cameras in our house recording our every move, so I don’t have definitive proof that this memory is wrong. And my son insists he’s right. I don’t disagree that he got something stuck in his throat at one point in time. He may have had a moment where he couldn’t breathe because of it. But whatever happened was so quick and minute that it slipped everyone else’s memory. Only, as brief as it was, it was traumatic to him at the time. I clearly didn’t notice just how traumatic it was and his brain has morphed my lack of acknowledgment of his trauma into a callous statement in his memory. “Dude, either spit it out or die.” As if I could have cared less one way or the other, so long as he picked an option and went with it.

But that’s memory for you. It’s influenced as much as by what happened as how we felt about people’s reactions to it. When I was little, about 6, we traveled across country in a station wagon, hauling a pop-up trailer, which we used to sleep in at various camp sites. Our trip culminated at Disneyland, and at the time (as unbelievable as this sounds right now), there was a campground right next to Disneyland. You could camp or set up a trailer and be very near the park. We stayed there. And for years, I remembered  my parents left me alone there and I was so, so sad.  I’d woken up inside the trailer and everyone was gone, and I went outside and watched the people at Disneyland, riding/having fun on the tall rides (a roller coaster and Ferris wheel type thing, in my memory).

Of course, my mother denies abandoning me at a trailer park outside of Disneyland (yeah alright!).  Now, I have very vivid emotions attached to this memory. Feeling very lonely and abandoned. But, my mom is like, “No, we left you with Herman.” And this may very well be true, because I don’t even remember anything else about this day, except a few minutes of it, though I know they were gone for hours. Herman is my older brother (by 8.5 years). My younger brother, Jamaal, was two at the time of the incident, and my parents left because he was sick and they’d taken him to the emergency room (no urgent care back in 1982). I suspect my brother went out to play with some of the other kids, because there was a playground there while. I woke up and he was gone, so I felt completely alone. I left the trailer because I wanted to see if anyone was out there. When I saw the car was gone, I was upset, and looked up and saw all the people having fun on the rides. So, then, I was even more unhappy. But at that point, I had to presume they’d come back. I mean, who would permanently leave behind the awesomeness that was me? But, then, I sat stewing in that trailer building memories that, too this day, are flawed.

I think recognizing that memories are flawed is a good thing for personal interactions and a great thing for storytelling. So, when you’re telling stories, you can get a lot of conflict out of memories.

About RJ Crayton

RJ Crayton is a former journalist who now writes fiction. She's reported for the Kansas City Star and Wichita Eagle, as well as the smaller publications Education Technology News and Campus Crime. She has two published novels, Life First and Second Life and blogs for Indies Unlimited and the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies. For exclusive content and first looks at her new work, sign up for the newsletter at http://rjcrayton.com/subscribe.
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