Memory Making

I spent today at home with a sick baby who slept a lot, so I ended up with a lot more time to catch up on blog reading than I had expected.  Something’s been tumbling around in my brain (actually there’s a lot rolling around up there — too bad so little of it seems to surface in any meaningful way), and I’m going to do my best to get it out.

Danah Boyd  just posted an interesting reflection on memory and how we go about capturing and holding onto memories.  In particular, she’s talking about how adults and youth approach capturing memory differently.  One sentence in particular caught me:

I often look at photos of me and realize that i had completely forgotten about that event. Yet, when i read all of my old blog posts from college, they followed the narrative i have in my head crafted through dramas. Am i letting technology replace my memory center?

I can relate to Danah’s feeling of looking back on some artifact of your life and not recognizing it as representing you. It reminds me of a post of my own from a few days ago, in which I wondered about how my experience of graduate school could have been different (and, ultimately, more valuable) if I had been blogging then.

I struggle a lot with my memory. It’s funny, because I’m actually very good at certain kinds of recall (I’ve always been very good at memorizing lines, for example). But, what I would classify as “intellectual recall” is not my strong point.  That’s part of why when I re-read my journal entries from graduate school they seemed so unfamiliar to me. I can remember how I felt when I was taking a class. I can remember the physical location of the classroom, where I usually sat, what people were in the class with me. But I have a very hard time recalling the things I was thinking about.

In many ways, this has been the struggle of my professional life.  I am constantly searching for a way to “pull thoughts forward” with me — to keep them fresh in my mind so that I can easily connect them to new concepts. 

Writing helps a lot, and I’m beginning to understand that blogging might be the critical tool I’ve been searching for. Danah suggests that technology is in fact replacing an internal memory center that she once had.  I feel as though technology (or blogging) offers me to the opportunity to create a memory center where I never had one to begin with. 

But this also really gets met thinking about the creation of memory more generally. During my hours at home today, I turned on the television in the afternoon and caught Oprah Winfrey’s interview with James Frey.  In the spirit of full disclosure I must admit that I have neither read A Million Little Pieces nor have I followed the controversy about it very closely.  But I was still struck by the indignation expressed by Oprah, her audience, and some of her guests about Frey’s misrepresentation of aspects of his life in this “memoir.” The general sentiment seems to be that he lied about his life and deceived his readers, thus making the message of survival and redemption that he was conveying less meaningful.

It made me think. We talk about our memories as though they are fact, but they’re not.  They’re our own subjective interpretations and recordings of the events of our lives.  I suppose that somewhere at the core of those recordings there is data — dates, names, places, times.  But really, the interpretation of that data is what makes it meaningful. And, I would argue, it is in the interpretation of the data that the memory is created. 

A few days ago, I was having a conversation with a friend about false memory syndrome.  This is a controversial topic and not one I have any personal experience with, but I wonder if we’re missing the point.  At the point when you truly believe that something happened to you, it becomes almost irrelevant whether it did or not.  The point is that you have woven this memory of yourself into your history.  It is part of you whether or not it happened — your belief makes it real.

I can choose to blog more frequently as a way to create a narrative of my development — both intellectual and personal — that I can always pull forward with me, using it as a tool to inform my future choices and shape my future ideas.  It’s easy to see how someone using a blog as a way to construct a memory center can “alter” the memory–after all, you’re literally writing the narrative. But even those blessed with well-functioning internal memory centers are really creating a narrative. Just because it is locked in their heads and not on a server doesn’t make it less subjective or more “accurate.” 

I guess I was surprised by the outrcy over Frey because this seemed obvious to me.  I  don’t read a memoir expecting  100% accuracy because I don’t know what an accurate memory is — I’m not sure I believe that such a thing can exist.