When I was writing Motherland, I relied on notes for all the chapters except one. For that chapter, I had taped an interview with a key source and, when I sat down to write it, I listened carefully to the tape and captured what I heard.
“What happened to you?” my agent asked upon reading that chapter. “This doesn’t work at all? What happened to your voice?” I explained that because I had the tape, I felt wedded to the absolute truth of the recording. “Throw out the tape,” she said. “This reads like the Congressional Record.”
A writer’s voice and memory is filtered by emotion. We insert facts and omit others. Memory is a storyteller. It’s how we make ourselves up, shaping raw experience, suggesting cause and effect in events, connecting dots to create a story and explain experience.
Several years ago, I had the great privilege of meeting one of America’s best known and most influential psychologists of the twentieth century, Jerome Bruner. While presenting at a conference at Louisiana State University on Memory and Narrative, he made a statement that summarizes some of his findings: “Self is a repository of selective memory. By telling a story, we organize a way of living, a way of thinking, a way of being that reflects a way of thinking. I have argued that a life as led is inseparable from a life as told—or more bluntly, a life is not ‘how it was’ but how it is interpreted and reinterpreted, told and retold.”
That, Dr. Bruner claims, is what makes us uniquely human.