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Navigating Memory’s Truth and Fiction

Crafting a memoir is a delicate dance between fact and story.

Read Voraciously


Before I pen anything, I immerse myself in the works of masters. A single sentence from Tolstoy, Joyce, or Murakami ignites my imagination. This eclectic array is not just for inspiration but also to tune into the audience I intend to reach. This process is akin to magic, enhancing my focus and enriching the rhythm of my writing. I struggled to find my way into my memoir.


To unlock my flow, I read tons of other memoirs. A major influence became Joan Didion: "Remember what it was to be me: that is always the point. It is not to 'recollect,' or 'explain,' or 'interpret.' It is to open oneself to the emotional truth of the past, at the cost of pain and with the chance of understanding."


I felt the pain. I felt the fear. I knew I would be misunderstood. But, there is no understanding of a person's deepest thoughts and experiences. Each person lives their own life. I followed my heart. I let loose. I believe the rhythm, the soulful cadence of sentences, forms the heartbeat of my craft. I've learned to trust it.


Write Instinctively


My writing ethos stems from lessons in music school: trust your ear, or more aptly, your instinct. Over the years, scripting for radio and listening to actors vocalize my words have honed my ability to capture raw human emotions. I write guided by the natural flow and rhythm, allowing the story to unfold in bursts of spontaneous revelation, much like uncovering hidden treasures. The American memorialist Patricia Hampl wrote, "Memoir isn't the summary of a life; it's a window into a life, very much like a photograph in its selective composition."


My memoir became an album of snapshots, faded and put on the page in a scrapbook. Memory is a mental improvisation. When I started to pay attention to my memories, and as they surfaced while I wrote, I realized there was a randomness to them, unexpected bursts, layers, a winding path toward the unknown. This realization freed me up to follow the melodies and harmonies of memory. I wrote where they led, and sometimes, they led to dark places and sometimes to unexpected moments of light.


What Is Memory


The quest for truth in my memoir felt like scaling an insurmountable peak. My memories, often elusive and shifting, challenged my narrative. Proust's words resonate: "The bonds that unite another person to ourselves exist only in our mind. Memory, as it grows fainter, relaxes them… we exist alone."


My approach became more about capturing the essence of memories rather than exact details. I crafted a narrative driven by the vivid colors and emotions of the past, transforming my memoir into a collage of feelings, moments, and music - each blending to tell the story of my life as I remember it. Proust's words struck me. I am alone in my experience. Who else shared my inner life?


No one.

The story came together around a narrative set free from a linear arc. memories juxtaposed themselves the way they came, triggered by different parts of my story. The memories that came to me became the bones of the narrative. It was almost as if my mind was editing as I went, choosing which memories to include and which to leave. I've led a rich and complex life, with many events demanding attention, but in the end, it was a certain story I wanted to tell, and the process became clearing memories away to get the threads I needed to weave the story.


The struggle and beauty of writing a memoir are evident - balancing between the fidelity of memory and the artistry of storytelling. I came to believe there was no fiction in memory if memory is told with resonant emotional truth.


At the end of the section on my time in Africa, I tell a story about going with my girlfriend to a beach in the Cape, on the tip of the continent. I didn't try to recite a series of facts, but I dug for the emotions of the elemental memory, taking a swim in the Indian Ocean only days from leaving Africa. The truth was in the poetry of the moment, the imagined imagery rising from a distant past, which I believe led me to a deeper sense of the moment.


It takes us an hour to climb down to the empty beach. We strip off our clothes and swim out into the waves. I feel the current take me as I float, watching the cliffs of the cape slowly captured in mist, the southern ice calling me along the ebbing tide, over the graveyard of ships, broken by the storms, join the drowned souls below, Africa north and south, coasts of traders and slaves, of navies and settlers, merchants and sailors clinging to the shore, and tribes witnessing the invasion, Zulu, Xhosa, Sotho, Tswana, calling the ancestors for protection, lions lifting their heads in the twilight, elephants gathering under the marula tree, wildebeest, drums across the veldt, fleeing the predators armed with gunpowder who flood in from the shore.


I hear the mbira player sitting on the banks of the Zambezi, the melodies floating downstream to the thundering falls, the township guitars along the rutted street. On the cliffs, I see a leopard looking down at us. I slowly tumble in the currents, the seam between the oceans, the Indian and the Atlantic, a sea shanty on the wind as I roll slowly over in surrender. The leopard turns and disappears into the bush.


Except from "The Diplomat's Son" by Christopher Mchale


It is not the factual memory you need when you tackle a memoir; it's the emotional memory, the shadows on the wall, the scents, the direction of the paths ahead and behind, the images that pass, the ones that stick, the eddies beneath the conversations. It's not what was said, but the feelings of what was said. The tidal basin of memory is set free by the emotional currents. In the end, my memoir flooded onto the page, beyond any meaning for me, but hopefully striking my reader and illuminating pieces of the life I led.

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