For a long time I’ve been fascinated with the idea of what I call my inner “snapshots,” the idea that I carry with me certain scenes and images from my life of experiences always, while most other events are forgotten. That famous quote from Cesare Pavese seems to echo this idea: "we don't remember days, we remember moments." Teachers of memoir will tell you that these are the memories to focus on – that there is always a lesson in the inner “snapshot." That these are the moments marking the times when your life changed somehow, and if you really take a good look at these moments you’ll find they mark some point of learning or new direction.
A few of my earliest personal “snapshots” include:
Years ago I wrote a personal story based on one of these inner snapshots, which was eventually read by CBC Radio storyteller and author Stuart McLean on his popular show the Vinyl Cafe. The story is about a man who, for a time, showed up at public ice skating sessions in the small town where I lived when I was a kid; a man of a visible minority rarely encountered in that town.
Some of my friends and family members who heard the story on the radio said to me later they didn’t remember that man at all. And even though the memory is still distinct in my mind – after all he was so startlingly out of place in that town – I started to question it, and ultimately the veracity of my story. Did I dream it? These kinds of questions have come up again numerous times after writing other stories and I wonder sometimes, why do I question my own truth?
And these questions are not unusual – they come up all the time in my memoir and non-fiction classes: “What if someone I write about denies something happened? Or denies it happened the way I remember it happening? Am I still allowed to write it?”
Yes. Because memoir and personal stories are just that – personal. They are about discovering and writing YOUR truth, and honouring it; they are about recreating experiences and finding how these events changed you and helped to create the person you've become.
In discussing memoir, writer, author and teacher William Zinsser echoes the significance of these moments for writers when he says the writer should look to “small self-contained incidents that are still vivid in your memory. If you still remember them it's because they contain a universal truth that your readers will recognize from their own life.”
Zinsser says, “Your biggest stories will often have less to do with their subject than with their significance — not what you did in a certain situation, but how that situation affected you and shaped the person you became.”
Indeed. After writing the story about the man at the skating rink, I discovered that what I really learned were lessons about compassion and the value and universal need for community and fellowship. Maybe some of the people I know don’t remember that man because the experience of him didn’t carry any message for them. But even if their memories don’t sustain the experience of the ice skating man, they DO share an understanding of a universal truth I uncovered in my memory.
My own belief is that the idea of “truth” cannot be labelled as one singular, universal concept. Truth is a personal, maleable understanding; it contains many layers and there are many factors which contribute to its existence. And I believe that in acknowledging these layers and levels of truth, writers will tell stories with more compassion – not only toward others but themselves. And if you write YOUR truth with both honesty and compassion, I can assure you, you'll be blown away by its power.