In 1992, just before my second birthday, my grandfather suffered a severe heart attack that left him with a damaged memory. He had equal difficulty remembering old memories and forming new ones. My mother would always tell me I was the only consistent thing that he remembered, because he never thought he’d live long enough to meet his first grandchild—and indeed I would be the only one he would ever meet.
Despite my grandfather’s lack of memory (which my grandmother used to her advantage to stop him from smoking cigarettes) he was one of the few natural storytellers I have known. He was the kind of person that would command your attention with a story about going to get a haircut.
On account of his memory loss each time he told the story to a different person it would change. Some people that didn’t know him might have labeled him a liar, but to him these stories were true every time he told them. He might tell the story of having his teeth punched out by a commanding officer and tell someone else how he caught a jungle disease causing the teeth to fall out. No matter how the story went they were always interesting and as believable to the audience as they were to his memory.
What I’m getting at is that memory is a key tool in storytelling. My grandfather made these stories so compelling because he believed them for truth because in his mind they were. For works of fiction I try to replicate this principle of remembering the story as if I was a witness (or narrator depending on the story). It’s a difficult task and not always the right way to go about writing a story, but it is almost always beneficial to the story.
As long as there’s a loose outline of event and place then the falsity of memory can fill in the gaps, because as we all know our memories are awful judges of the past. We miss so many minor events in our everyday lives because they have no bearing on us, but then remember exactly what time we left the house for no reason at all other than we glanced at the clock on the way out.
In other words let yourself become immersed in the world and fill in the details with what memory provides, because it will make your story more real if you believe these events are just as true as a birthday. Don’t be afraid of little details that escape you or if you’re not quite sure if you were walking on Kentucky Blue Grass or Wheatgrass. Memory isn’t crystal clear, but let that memory take you back there where you’ve never been.