D I A N A R A A B
"The Strands Are All There":
A Few Notes on Memory and Imagination
As a memoir writer and poet who often uses personal experiences as inspiration for my writing, I spend a great deal of time contemplating how memory merges with imagination. I wonder about the accuracy of our memories and how often we subconsciously fill in the blanks. Because memoirs are usually written about events that occurred a long time ago, facts and images are often blurred. When images become blurry, there is a temptation to embroider memory with fictive details. The memoirist often finds themselves somewhere between the domain of a historian and that of a novelist. Thus, one of the memoir writer’s primary challenges is the balancing act of memory and imagination.
For my MFA thesis, I closely studied two well-known literary memoirs, Memories of a Catholic Girlhood by Mary McCarthy and One Writer’s Beginnings by Eudora Welty, both of which exemplify such balancing acts. Much of the literary criticism relating to these memoirs focuses on McCarthy’s and Welty’s use of imagination to flesh out events which they had difficulty recalling. In the service of truth, each writer had to blend memory with her imagination. As fiction writers, Welty and McCarthy had the necessary skills to dramatize elements of their past. “Writing fiction has developed in me,” says Welty, “. . . a sense of where to look for the threads, how to follow, how to connect, find in the thick of the tangle what clear line persists. The strands are all there: to the memory nothing is ever really lost” (90). Both McCarthy and Welty admit to having forgotten certain events from their childhoods, and both women, but particularly McCarthy, wrote about what they remembered and did not remember. What sets these two writers apart is their upbringings, personalities, intentions, and how they handled not remembering during the process of writing their memoirs.
For the most part, writers set out to write truthful memoirs, but often, as in McCarthy’s case, it does not take long before they realize the unreliability of their own memories. McCarthy gets lost in a labyrinth of confusing images from her past. She is unsure about the demarcations between her memory, her imagination, and her habitual childhood lying. (Much of the literary criticism pertaining to Memories of a Catholic Girlhood make some reference to McCarthy’s lying as a child.) Writing about the time her family had to evacuate their home during the influenza epidemic, for example, McCarthy describes an evening they all spent in a hotel: “I remember the grave atmosphere in our hotel suite the night before we took the train. Aunt Zula and the baby were both sick, by this time, as I recall it, and all the adults looked worried and uncertain” (16). Here, McCarthy admits her uncertainty (“as I recall it”) about the details. Yet readers still believe that she observed the “worried and uncertain” looks of the adults because that detail does not necessitate the sickness of Aunt Zula and the baby.
Having family members to validate memories can greatly help the memoir writer. Welty had parents with whom to validate her memories but she admits forgetting certain events. (This may also have to do with her writing the memoir much later in life, a common occurrence for memoirists.) Though the inability to check the facts with family gives McCarthy a strong sense of insecurity about her past, it also, paradoxically, lends authority to her voice. She earns the reader’s trust by admitting the unreliability of her memory.
Memoir writers often alternate between the voice of the child and the voice of the adult narrator. Tristine Rainer, in her book Your Life as Story, calls this “the composite voice of autobiographic writing” (129). This voice is a combination of the younger self, the protagonist from the past, and the older self, the narrator in the present. For Rainer, it is this combination that gives the memoir its dramatic tension. Reading a narrative with this composite voice, one may get the notion that the writer is torn between two worlds—the child’s and the adult’s—and this contributes to the dilemma of how to balance fact and imagination. Welty, who uses the composite voice more frequently than McCarthy, writes:
It seems to me, writing of my parents now in my seventies, that I see continuities in their lives that weren’t visible to me when they were living. Even at the times that have left me my most vivid memories of them, there were connections between them that escaped me. Could it be because I can better see their lives—or any lives I know—today because I am a fiction writer?
The conflict between a naïve and uncomplicated view of history and an adult tendency to revise or interpret a memory complicates our notions of truth and dramatizes the relationship between what’s remembered and what’s embellished. As Welty’s quotation makes clear, it is the older, retrospective half of the composite voice that does the imagining.
Ultimately, in studying the interplay of memory and imagination, I believe that in order to write a compelling memoir, a particular balance (different for every memoir) must be struck between fiction and nonfiction. Nowhere is it written that memoirs are fact; memoirs ought to be about truth, which is often the byproduct of memory mixed with imagination.
McCarthy, Mary. Memories of a Catholic Childhood. Boston: Mariner Books, 1972.
Rainer, Tristine. Your Life as Story: Discovering the "New Autobiography" and Writing Memoir as Literature. New York: Penguin Putnam, 1998.
Welty, Eudora. One Writer’s Beginnings. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1984.
Diana Raab, PhD, is an award-winning memoirist, poet, blogger, and speaker whose work has appeared in numerous journals and anthologies. She is the author of ten books including Regina's Closet: Finding My Grandmother's Secret Journal (Beaufort Books, 2007) and An Imaginary Affair: Poems Whispered to Neruda (Finishing Line Press, 2022).