Yesterday a relative pointed out to me some troubles with yesterday’s post. She said, first off, that I painted my mom to be more naïve than she was. After all, she said, her first husband–before my father–had slept around and run off on her. Second, I had the facts of the divorce decree simply wrong. Our father could take us out of the county but not out of the state, that this is a standard clause in custody arrangements. I maintained that I was right because I remembered. My relative pointed out that she, unlike me, had actually read my parents’ divorce decree.

To the first point: One of the things I don’t like about blogging is the demand for conciseness. Though I could in theory write a 5,000-word blog post, I don’t have the time to write it, and no-one wants to take that long to read a blog post. And so I compress, and avoid explaining some of the nuance. My mother, like every human being on the planet, is a complex person.

As to the second point, I relied mostly on a memory I had when I was ten. My father was going to take us to an amusement park near the Kentucky border. My mother said that he couldn’t because he was violating the divorce decree. The police got involved and everything. (In the end, our father took us, but it wasn’t a fun trip. He sat at the entrance and just told us to run off and do whatever. He wouldn’t give us any money whatsoever for concessions, and they charged five cents for water, and so we ran around on a hot day with no fluids.)

And so I tried to remember why there was the big brouhaha, and I thought it had to do with taking us out of the county. But now I have to admit that my memory was wrong here somehow. The trouble could have been that my father never told my mother directly that he was going to take us on the trip, having my brother tell her instead. It could be that, at the time, my mother misunderstood the divorce decree. Or it could have been something else that I can’t think of right now.

All of this calls to mind two important issues. First, autobiography is not memoir. In an autobiography, the author is reporting history. She collects facts and does research, even though she’s writing about her own life. An autobiography focuses on facts. In memoir, the author relies on her memory and the memory of those around her to inform the writing. And a memoirist is not merely reporting history, but is telling a story. She is using plot devices and story structures and all the other elements we use to tell a good story. But real life is not a “good story”. In real life, things don’t have a beginning, middle, and end–life just flows on. But stories demand a beginning, middle, and end, and so the memoirist frames her life to conform to the conventions of storytelling. Similarly, human beings are ridiculously complex, but for the sake of telling a story, especially a shorter story, the writer doesn’t dive into the 37 reasons why a character does what he does.

I am not an autobiographer, I am a memoirist. That distinction is crucial to understanding what I write. I have no intention to get facts wrong or to misrepresent anyone or anything. But I do try to tell a good story. And if I do get something wrong, as I did yesterday, I want to be called out on it so I can get the facts straight. I have learnt that it is better to be wrong and speak up than to be wrong and remain silent. If I speak up, then my wrongness can be pointed out, and I can change my mind and be right, whereas if I remain silent, I stay wrong.

Image from

“The Persistence of Memory” by Salvador Dalí

And then there is the niggling issue of the reliability of memory. Science keeps showing us it’s not particularly reliable. The human brain is constantly restructuring itself and putting the pieces together the best it can, albeit imperfectly. We only have the illusion that our memory persists, when in fact our memory warps and melts and drips.

Is this a terrible thing? I’m of the same mind as a former professor of mine, Leah Savion of Indiana University (probably the best teacher I’ve ever had). She has an idea (which I really wish would get some notice in the academic community) that she calls “naive logic”. It’s the premise that, despite all the demonstrable failings of the human mind–its inconsistencies, its inability to grasp even basic logic, and yes, its faulty memory–it has nonetheless served humanity well for several hundred thousand years and is responsible for getting us to evolve to the point we are at. Therefore, despite our brains’ deficiencies, they serve us well nonetheless and therefore ought not to be dismissed when we delve into a deeper understanding of philosophy.

Now, the implications for this idea are profound in many areas of philosophy and cognitive science, and I won’t bother to dive into those here (because, again, none of us wants a 5,000-word blog post). Suffice it to say that I think I, and all of us, are usually doing the best we can with that wad of grey stuff between our ears. It’s part of why I try to treat people with trust and grace, even when others might consider doing so unwarranted. I believe that to live otherwise would be pretty much impossible. We would always be paralyzed, doubting every little fact of the universe.

So keep doing the best you can. I will.


About Whittier Strong

Whittier Strong is an MFA student in creative writing at the University of Alaska-Fairbanks, with a focus in nonfiction. He graduated from Metropolitan State University with a BA in creative writing. He has special interests in sociology and philosophy.

Posted on 17 June, 2013, in Uncategorized and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 81 Comments.

  1. Wow! What blows me away is that someone could read your post from yesterday and get hung up on small details like the ones you mentioned. There is so much in that story to ponder and think about that those details would never cross my mind.

    Anyway, your story really moved me. Thanks for sharing.

  2. I never thought about the distinction between memoir and autobiography like that before, but now I realize it’s true. I’ll have to keep that in mind if I ever write a memoir or autobiography (or if I ever have a character who does).

  3. ‘Demand for conciseness,’ is an unreasonable demand for they who care to cogitate. At any given time, someone will be offended, find faults, etc; so you are correct, do the best you can and be true to yourself.

    Can’t ask for too much more.

  4. Reblogged this on a-litre of life and commented:
    Took the words out of my mouth!

  5. metrohousesrealty

    Live without hypocrisy. That’s what I learned from this post.

  6. There’s a reason for using a nom de plume. You may not want your relatives reading everything that you write, especially if you are a memoirist. There is a wide variety of blogs on this site, it’s whatever the writer wants to do, it seems. So I’m not sure that you have to be wed to conciseness and absolute precision in a blog. One blogger gave some good advice but I couldn’t agree with one of her points—to write a draft the night before and then the next day read it again and see if you want to publish it. If I followed that advice, I would never blog. For me, it’s the stream of consciousness trait of blogging that I love. But I am still a baby blogger. This is an art form and I am a beginner.

    • I understand why some writers choose noms de plume. For myself, I made a conscience decision to use my real name because I believe in standing by my word regardless of the outcome. (And, actually, I asked the relative to read what I wrote.) All that said, I may someday write a roman à clef. If I were to tell my full life story, I could easily destroy some lives in the process, and I choose not to do so.

  7. This article brings up a lot of good points. I would argue that even if we think we remember something from childhood perfectly, chances are we still don’t, because kids seldom know the whole story. Sadly, the anger and hurt caused by something our parents did or didn’t do often comes decades before the understanding of why they chose that course of action.

    • I agree wholeheartedly. It took a lot of therapy for me to start to figure out my childhood, and I may never get it completely figured out, especially since my father has been dead for so long and I can’t get his perspective (though assuming he maintained the same trajectory had he not died, he wouldn’t have shared much, if any, anyway).

  8. so true…memoir comprises of memory and each ones memory, though we prefer not to tamper, is also bound by the impressions of what, when and how each was created in our mind – you have brought this out well and love the fact that you like to stand by your words but have no hesitance in being corrected if you are not correct.
    congratulations on being freshly pressed.

  9. It’s a good thing you have aunts to set you straight. I could make everything about my whole early life up and no one would know the difference. No one else remembers anything more than I do, and I am the youngest child in the family. They probably remember a lot less. My own sister asked me, “Did I break my arm on the monkey bars that time or did you?” She did.

    • To be precise, I said “relative,” not “aunt.” I’m not going to reveal whether it was an aunt or not because I want to protect that person’s privacy. I’m just lucky I have a LOT of female relatives! 🙂

      Keeping, remembering, saving, passing on stories–it’s all so important. I’m trying to go about the task (outside of this blog) to record as many family stories as I can. It’s good that it sounds like you’re doing some of the same for your family. Stories are the only thing all people have in common, and they’re really the only things we have, the only thing we leave behind when we die.

  10. One of the most memorable professors in my writing program was a memoirist. Her nuggets of wisdom are the ones that have stuck with me the longest and have had the most profound affect on my own recent forays into the genre. I’m looking forward to going backward to read the piece you discuss here–forearmed and forewarned.

  11. Never thought of memory that way before, but it rings so true. My Mother and I both have famously unreliable memory, and I do feel as if it melts, and drips. Fantastic way of describing how facts, details, get away from us!
    And I love the way you defined the difference between autobiography and memoir. Beautifully done.

  12. Great rebuttle, your spot on, you are memorist. I too may have memories of the past that sometimes does not match yo to what others think happen. Thanks for sharing such an intimate time in your life. But staying true to yourself is the most important keep up the good work. I look forward to your future posts.

  13. Hi Whittier,
    “The Persistence of Memory” by Salvador Dalí is one of my favorites! Thank you so much for this wonderful blog. I look forward to seeing more from you. Do you like any other Dali’s?

  14. In my memoir, published in 2011, I began with an author’s note to make very clear to readers that everything in it is true — from what I can remember. I took notes for some of the 2.5 years I described, and I include dialogue and conversation as if verbatim — but did not necessarily take notes nor did I, (or could I have, working in a retail store), tape record them. As a career journalist, I have an excellent memory, but it, like anyone’s allows for error.

    Part of the challenge is the credulous/uneducated reader who has no idea what constitutes fiction, non-fiction, journalism, memoir or autobiography. Not to mention the memoirists and others later unveiled as total liars and/or plagiarists.

    Walt Harrington, a terrific NF writer, was legendary for re-reporting his own memoirs — like going back to check the exact weather conditions on a day he was describing but might well have mis-reported from memory alone.

  15. That was a great post! And I love that work you used to illustrate it. Congratulations on being Freshly Pressed.

  16. It’s funny I find myself reading this today, have always been interested by the unreliability of memory. Can I ask, the professor you mention, Leah Savion, has she ever done any work around cognitive biases? The thing I need explaining to me is how every time I take a longish trip somewhere the return journey feels far shorter than the one there.

    • That’s one of her specialties. I had her for symbolic and philosophical logic, but her real focus is cognitive science, and a lot of her theory of naive logic centers on cognitive biases.

      • You think she could help me out with something if I email her. I was looking to write something about cognitive biases and how they influence us, but wanted to include some anecdotal stuff from someone who knows what they’re talking about, a bit about what drew their interest to it.

      • There’s a slight chance I could facilitate the connection. Aside from my writing her for records regarding transferring college credits a year ago, I haven’t had contact with her in ten years. I’ll see what I can do. She’s a brilliant woman, and I think her ideas need more exposure. Of course, there are also her publications, which are in the faculty profile I linked to in the article, but those will be highly technical, and I don’t know how deep you’re wanting to get into the subject.

      • That would be fantastic. I’m trying to put together something accessible but insightful. These biases, they seem to affect so much about how we view things yet remain invisible to us. I’d be very grateful for any attempt you’re able to make on my behalf. It’s very generous of you to even suggest.

  17. I must be a memoirist. 🙂 If I convince my husband to write down some of his stories (He thinks he can’t write because he has learning disabilities), then he will be a memoirist, too.

    • If he wants to tell his story, he should. I know that there are a lot of stigmas around learning disabilities that discourage people from venturing forth on something like that. The trick to overcoming that sort of thing, I think, is reminding them about coauthors, editors, and spell-check. The only thing we really have in this world is our story, and nothing should keep us from it.

  18. Congratulations on Freshly Pressed!

  19. Anna Catherine

    This post struck a chord for me on many levels. Thank you so much for writing it, it is beautiful.

  20. Great article just pressed a 2 stories about the Dali painting.

  21. Persistence actually wins finally. Never allow any unfavorable situation to discourage you. Great story you’ve shared here. THANKS!

  22. Hmmm…. great post!

  23. Great post ! I’m a newbie blogger and I was just wondering about the different problems with my writing. I figured one could only improve through sole practice. But I’ve also realized now that improvement can be subjective and one can ‘improve’ by reading one’s own writing.

    • It’s very helpful. Two other things I recommend:

      Read read read. Read good literature. Reading good writing will influence your writing.

      Get with other writers and share each other’s work. Develop a community in which writers offer each other constructive feedback. You can find this community a number of ways. offers writing groups in many cities. You can also find writing communities on Facebook. A class at a local college is a fantastic way to go about it. Scout around your public library or independent bookstore for flyers advertising writing groups. And if none of these options are available to you, start your own group.

  24. Intriguing touch in moving from incidental to philosophical – from micro to macro – the way you do. Should serve you well in your writing. I’ll be following your blog, and without meaning to come across like a stalker or anything, you might find it of interest to reciprocate. Up to you of course, but if you do you’ll see what I mean.

    • Thank you. I’m not quite sure how I learnt how to write like that. I remember my speech for Academic Decathlon in high school many years ago was structured the same way. It would be nice if I could incorporate personal essays like this into some of my writing samples for grad school.

  25. You seem to have the knack. Talent can’t be faked or bought. If you have it all that matters is that you use it and how you use it. Within a stipulated structure the addition of laterally-applied subject matter can be what elevates an essay from the routine to the revelatory. I’m not trying to teach by the way. We’re in similar boats, and I’m as much expressing myself for the clarification of ideas as anything, so thanks for that.

  26. Congratulations on being Fresh Pressed.

    On long posts – mine are quite rambling but people seemed to read the. I’d read a 10,000 word post if it interested me.

    And on remembering things, it’s not just memory it’s also seeing things properly. At an HSE session I watched a video where one team in black played basketball against one team in white – we were told to count the number of times the ball passed between the two teams. Being bored I didn’t do the count but I watched the video. A gorilla appears, walks to the middle and waggles his ears at the audience and walks off. I was the only person who saw the gorilla because everybody else was watching the ball. When the video was rerun and the people were told just to watch the screen everybody saw the gorilla. A few people though said it was 2 different videos.

    So, although memory is unreliable the human eye often sees only what it believes it should see.

  27. Congratulations on the Freshly Pressed nod and great post. I think the fact that the human mind is so selective and unreliable makes things more interesting. Personally, I would rather read a memoir than an autobiography as the human experience and individual perspective fascinate me. I’ll be following.

  28. In the 1984 Milos Forman film Amadeus, about Wolfgang Mozart, there is a scene where the count is asked for his opinion on a new opera, and he says, “there were… too many notes, yes that’s it Mozart. Try to cut out all the unnecessary notes.” To which Mozart replies that there are just as many notes as it needs, neither too many nor too few. I think this is also true of stories. A sentence has just as many words as are required to express your thoughts, and a story has just as many sentences as are required to tell the story. If I were you, if I were as good a writer as you, I wouldn’t worry too much about how long of a blog post people are prepared to read. Just tell the story, you’ll know when you’ve got to the end. They’ll read it if its as well written as what you have here.

    • Sage advice, thank you.

      The issue isn’t just about the conventions, it’s about time. It usually takes me about an hour to write a blog post, and I’ve got too many other things pulling me to write for as long as I sometimes want. I’m actually about to write a post about all of this.

  29. My blog is a memoir as well…not really an autobiogrphy. I love that you have pointed out the difference…I hadn’t really thought about it before. I just write and delve into that grey matter, striving to pull out a reasonable (and hopefully entertaining) account of events. I’ll just have to go and read the post you are talking about now. Jen

  30. For those that like poetry, please check out my blog

  31. Reblogged this on Excel Realty Academy and commented:
    Today’s Advice!

  32. Good for her about naive logic. That anthropological reference isn’t forgotten, its rejected. People don’t want to be mammals or descendants of homo erectus ‘nem; folks wanna be divine- better, or different. To understand that people make mistakes and have similar qualities– can be a rejection of self for not being innately divine (for lack of desire to try a new word at 2am)

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