It may seem factual, but the following account of my experience in the writing workshop “Rewriting your Life” is actually fiction.

According to Robin Hemley, the author teaching the workshop, all memoir is. As writers, we are constantly engaging our imaginations, so that the things we have imagined intertwine with events as they really happened. This means that our memories, a rather important resource when writing a memoir, are not entirely accurate. They are, in fact, quite fallible.


To prove it, Robin led us through an exercise. He first instructed us to close our eyes. We were to picture the room, a classroom in pleasant disarray on the second floor of Buttrick Hall, and to describe it as accurately we could. When he tapped a desk, that person was to share a detail about the room.

It sounded fairly easy, but I was alarmed at how unsafe I felt without the comfortable assurance of my eyes. The fear of the unknown was something I had experienced before. How was it that closing my eyes evoked the same strange emotions I felt as I prepared to spend a semester as a Page in the House of Representatives? As I returned to a high school in South Carolina, where no one else had experienced the singular experience that now ruled my perspective, where my friends had grown cool toward me? As I contemplated how to go about sharing such an experience, to write it, to open it up to the judgment of the world?

I frantically scanned my memory for some detail worthy of sharing. The sunlight streaming through the windows in the left wall, igniting the leaves of the oak tree outside and turning the dark wood of the window frame a honey gold. The pale, gray-green color of the carpet, perhaps the “industrial green” one professor had mentioned, a color once thought to have a soothing effect. Before I knew it, what must have been my unfailing good karma led Robin to tap my desk first.

Maps,” I said, “There are a lot of maps on the wall over the blackboard.”

This tidbit, which was surely paired with a blind, erratic movement of my arms toward the wall in front of me, fostered a discussion of the maps. What were they maps of? What brand were they? How many were there? The group decided that there were three or four maps. When we opened our eyes, we discovered that this was one of the many details we got wrong. There were four sets of rolled, pull-down classroom maps above the blackboard, many of them disheveled, each with a least ten maps in the roll. I’d gotten one thing right though: there really were
a lot of maps.

Robin wanted us to understand the fallibility of memory not so that we would doubt our recollections of events, but in order to realize that details, like the number of maps on the wall, are often not the most memorable or most important elements of the story.

What is more crucial is something that Robin called “emotional truth.” Even if you remember the details wrong, or have to make something up, you can express the truth of your experience through its emotional meaning to you.

Sharing experiences through memoir exposes a part of your soul, in such a form that readers expect it to be true. What if someone judges you? Worse, what if they don’t care about your story at all? The workshop reminded me of the challenge of writing my stories in a relevant way that would reach out to people and move them.

It also showed me that with my eyes closed in a room full of strangers, I have the power to speak my memories aloud.

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Caitlin White is a first-year student at Agnes Scott College. She hails from Union, South Carolina, and plans on graduating in 2013.

Ann White
9/29/2009

This makes me think of my writing class last spring, where we incessantly discussed the problem of getting all the facts straight while writing creative nonfiction--how to add the literary embellishments, while sticking to the "truth." It also reminds me of the research that has revealed how faulty our memories are--how colored by the "emotional truth"--and how shaky "eyewitness" testimony is.

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10/12/2013

It is good to have an end to journey towards, but it is the journey that matters, in the end.

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