Writers Are Prisoners of Our Memories
September 17, 2012
Writing fiction is humbling. My first novel started as a memoir, a tribute of sorts to my parents and the hard struggles they faced in life. I had kept notes and scraps of paper that eventually turned into computer files for years without realizing why I felt a need to record memories. Maybe my subconscious told me that I had better write these things down before they slipped away.
I started the book just after my mother died, because many memories had been rekindled with her passing. I wrote in a stream of consciousness for about a month, absolutely sure that everything I wrote had happened exactly as I recalled. I even won an argument or two with relatives about specific events.
Then one day, while searching through pictures, newspaper clippings, and family memorabilia, I discovered a mistake or two. I had been wrong about the time frame, the people involved or the sequence of events on more than one occasion. That’s when I decided to change my memoir to a novel.
Five novels taught me that our memories often alter events over time. Some would say that we reframe them in a fashion more favorable to us. But it’s more complicated than that. For example, a certain scene in Go Down Looking replays itself often in my memory.
I know that I was present the night a building exploded in downtown Commerce, and have confirmed with old pal Jake Gervers that we were both on the downtown square when it happened. Jake worked for Phillips Grocery and I worked for City Pharmacy.
I vividly recall returning from Ward’s Drug and noting a small flicker inside a BBQ joint next to JC Penney’s. Other than that small flicker of light, the inside was pitch-black. I thought that was unusual because I could usually make out furniture inside the place even when it was closed.
I also see myself putting my hands against the window of the joint, feeling the heat on the glass, and peering through the hand-telescope I made. I recall seeing a small flicker of light inside and assuming it was probably a burner left on, too dumb to realize the window was hot and the place was black because the small flame had consumed all the oxygen.
Then the windows exploded, sending shards of glass across the street, crashing into the brick walls of Freezia and Steger’s. But where was I when it exploded? I see myself against the brick wall most of the time, but sometimes I am out on the square, sounding the alarm, yelling at Jake. There is nothing heroic about my actions in any of my memories, so why do they change?
Jim Ainsworth is author of the novel, Rivers Flow, where a mysterious presence continually saves a family from ruin.