Memories and Other Lies

Fiction is never truly fiction. At various points in a narrative, whether within a conversation, place, description, character, or detail, the author leaves behind a bit of themselves. Some may be obvious to us, especially for past writers whose life stories are well known, but others are subtle, a knowing wink or an in-joke from the author that may never be known except by the readers it was intended for. What they share, of course, are memories—useful lies that give storytelling the illusion of reality and common experience.

What makes memories so effective in writing is that they’re faulty to begin with. In The Lost Chord, my narrator addresses this very issue by asking, “Had I colored the past so much that I no longer remembered what it was really like?” And therein lies the truth I encountered while writing this novel. We self-edit to suit our emotional and spiritual needs and often embellish memories with new details that never existed when it suits us. Nostalgia plays its part, as does wishful thinking, but in the end we mold and utilize our memories—especially in fiction—to give us a sense of control. Or so we think.

True Story: While writing The Lost Chord I took a break for an extended period to work on other projects. I do this quite often, this shifting of gears, to let in some fresh air. This did not suit my three main characters—classical musicians—at all, since I left them back in the 1980s without their instruments and nothing to do. What followed was a dream in which the three strolled freely along the streets of Old Town in Chicago, complained loudly about my abandonment of them, and then discussed where they thought the story should go next. Without me. So—I have a memory of three people I created, based in part on my memories of musicians I had known, who hijacked and fleshed out my memory of a place that appears only briefly in the story for their own purposes. I got the hint and returned to my writing. So much for control. Rascals.

If this seems an odd diversion it’s to point out that a single memory does not exist in a vacuum. One triggers another, then another, then another. Making sense of them within the framework and context of a story that begins forty years ago carries with it responsibilities and liabilities. What memories I chose to use had to serve the narrative arc even if, in reality, they began and ended quite differently. To remain true to the characters, they had to be further altered to either support their backstories or justify their personalities and behaviors. And then they had to be tweaked to keep the story in motion. That scene with the concert performance? It’s absolutely true in my fictional universe as my fictional narrator remembers it, but my real memory of the event was most likely misremembered and sketchy on details anyway. Voila! Useful lies!