Memories Once Forgotten



I’m attempting to write an essay, just one freaking essay, about my time in Ecuador. I say attempting because I haven’t made a break yet. I jot a lot of notes, write little scenes in a notebook that I carry in my purse, scribble down random thoughts and flashes of memory, and I spend a lot of time thinking about why I want to write these essays and what Ecuador meant for me, then and now. Yet, at the end of the day, I have nothing complete, nothing even close to a comprehensive picture of my time there. So I keep digging deeper into my mind, desperately collecting all the memories I can and translating them to the page, hoping that the right one will trigger the waterfall that causes my essay to just, well, flow.

About a month ago, I was once again staring into space as I tried to piece together the blurry details of a distant memory when it occurred to me that I didn’t have to rely on my recollections alone. In fact, I had a wealth of written records of my time in Ecuador. I had my own Facebook posts as well as hundreds of Facebook messages exchanged between friends and family near and far, including fellow Peace Corps volunteers, my sister, close college friends, and Ecuadorian friends and students and love interests. I also had the long, detail-packed emails I’d intermittently exchanged between friends and family in the States, the mode different but not entirely unlike the longhand letter writing of my grandmother’s generation. And Gmail logged all of my chats during that time, capturing the banal and heartbreaking moments alike.

As I attempt to cobble memories of my Ecuadorian life together, I read through hours of random emails and chats. It’s a phrase that’s used too often, but sorting through these written records can only be described as an out of body experience. As I read those words, emotions that have long since vacated the sights and sounds still lingering in my memory came flooding back with full force. It’s bizarre, how blurry certain memories are, and yet these little snippets of time are forever frozen in the words exchanged through an unreliable internet connection spanning between Ecuador and the United States (or Facebook’s servers, wherever those lie). If I could find the palm-sized, 90s-era Nokia cell phone I carried during the last year of my service, imagine the records I’d have!

As I sort through these flashes of my Ecuadorian life, my thoughts span the gamut. In some instances, I am immediately transported into the moment, suddenly inhabiting my 26-year-old body again like a time-traveling character in a science fiction TV show, and in others, I am completely foreign to myself, unrecognizable in my culture shock and compassion fatigue. Over time, you can see the state of my mind shifting in the text; I have fewer substantive conversations. My correspondence is filled with the surface level, vague notions of what I’m doing and how much longer I’ll be in Ecuador. In these cases, the text conveys next to nothing, but I can see myself drowning in the whirlpool of my own emotions, too involved in my own struggles to perceive anything of my friends’ and family’s lives. The longer I’m in Ecuador, the bigger the gap between my understanding of their lives becomes and their understanding of mine.

At some point, I find myself thinking of Ira Glass. Recently, I listened to an episode of This American Life, fittingly entitled Captain’s Log, which discussed the hidden histories behind the random notes and snippets of our lives that we leave behind. In it, Ira Glass casually mentions that he and his wife  once had an argument via text that was so intense that his wife suggested that they delete the texts afterwards. She didn’t want any living record of the hateful words they’d exchanged, even though they had long reconciled and the hate had gone out of those words now. I thought that was strange—after all, who would be casually reading their texts?—until I started paging through all of these emails and chats. While listening to the Hamilton soundtrack for the hundredth time, I finally notice a lyric that I had never truly heard before, despite my repeated listenings. In the song “Burn,” Eliza describes her heartbreak at being betrayed by her husband, then defiantly tells Hamilton that she’s “erasing myself from the narrative. Let future historians wonder how Eliza reacted when you broke her heart. They don’t get to know what I said. I’m burning the memories, I’m burning the letters that might’ve redeemed you.”

On any given day, we snap off 140-character opinions and plaster the internet with pictures of our lives with little to no thought about what happens to that information years from now, when it’s buried in the depths of our Facebook news feeds but still accessible to anyone patient enough to click through all your old posts. And as I continue to write through this confusion and darkness, I can’t help but wonder: what will I make of all these words already thrust into the universe, these detailed records of my life that I was barely aware of? I can’t burn them, like Eliza does in Hamilton; long after they’ve been deleted out of my inbox or news feed, they will always exist on a server somewhere. So what becomes of them now?

Five Minute Book Blurb: The Art of Memoir

I’ve always identified myself as a fiction writer. Creative nonfiction, as a genre, didn’t enter into my awareness until I was a couple of years into college, and even then, the idea of writing it never occurred to me. Creative nonfiction was for those who had lived extraordinary lives or those who had survived horrendous childhoods plagued with alcoholic or drug-addicted parents, those who had built schools in Afghanistan or those with collections of exotic stories after traveling the world. It wasn’t until my last year of graduate school that I made my first attempt at writing my own true stories as part of a nonfiction class and started to discover what writing nonfiction meant.

Compelled by my experiences in Ecuador and a need to reconcile my life there with the high-paced American life that I live now, I recently picked up Mary Karr’s The Art of Memoir in an attempt to figure out how to render lived experiences to the page. The week before, I had settled down to begin unwinding the matted yarn ball of memories that is my Peace Corps life and realized that I had a multitude of questions about writing in this genre: What if the details are fuzzy and I can’t remember every event in a sequence of occurrences? How do I tap the mixed up card catalog of memories that is my mind so I can render the details on the page?  Is there a secret strategy for rediscovering memories long forgotten? How do I muster the courage to include the details that portray myself and others in a less than flattering light? Does writing nonfiction necessarily mean giving up all of your secrets?

If you’re not lucky enough to be one of Karr’s students at Syracuse University, reading The Art of Memoir is the next best thing to taking her memoir writing class. Citing her own creative process while writing her three best-selling memoirs and referring to a list of others that she regularly teaches, Karr explains the ins and outs of writing memoir, dedicating entire chapters to unraveling the thread of memory, dealing with difficult portrayals of friends and family, and defining what truth means in the context of memoir. The reoccurring theme that ties the book together is why we write memoir in the first place. As Karr points out, good stories don’t always make good memoir material; instead, she says, we write memoir to make sense of lived experience, to explore the details of our lives more fully and understand what it means in the greater context of who we are. Throughout the book, she dissects passages, line by line, from other admired memoirs, illustrating how any lived experience, if rendered truthfully and with emotion, can capture a reader’s interest. Multiple chapters also contain lists of practical writing strategies, and what many disliked about this book—the extremely technical discussion of the craft of writing—is what I so loved the most.

As I sit with my thoughts and memories now, I find myself weighing the emotional significance of each and reconsidering how snippets of my lived experience can be incorporated in a way that impacts the reader rather than just tells them a good story. Karr’s book also provides a good reminder as to why we write, even in the face of doubt and unpromised reward:

“Writing, regardless of the end result—whether good or bad, published or not, well reviewed or slammed—means celebrating beauty in an often ugly world. And you do that by fighting for elegance and beauty, redoing or cutting the flabby, disordered parts.”

It’s an argument for revising, but it reminds me why I get up before sunrise every day to scribble down my thoughts, even when the words come slow and the work is frustrating.

Writers who are well versed in the world of memoir or who are looking for prescriptive rules on how to write a best-selling book will be unsatisfied with Karr’s book. If there’s anything a true writer knows, it’s that there isn’t a one tried and true method. For this nonfiction novice, though, Karr’s book struck the right balance between instructional and theoretical, helping me to reimagine how to approach writing about a complex time in my life and nudging me to finally put some words to paper. If you’re a memoir lover, you lose nothing from reading this book. At the very least, you’ll walk away with an expansive list of memoirs to study as you journey down your own path of turning memories into pages.

This is a great book to read if… you’re making your first venture into nonfiction and/or memoir writing, or if you’ve already begun and you just need a helpful nudge to get back on track.

If you’re interested in books that discuss the craft of writing, I’d highly recommend… On Writing by Stephen King, which also discusses the craft of writing in specific terms.

If you’re interested in a more traditional review…(especially one with an opposing point of view), I’d suggest this one by Gregory Cowles, who believes that Karr’s book is scattered and that her treatment of truth in memoir overlooks exactly what makes the genre so appealing: the formation and subjective recreation of identity.




Making Sense of Memory (Loss)

During my two-year stint in the Peace Corps, I developed a memory problem, or so it seemed when upon returning home I couldn’t remember how to get to my best friend’s house despite the fact that I could practically drive the route in my sleep before moving to Ecuador. “Did you really use your GPS to get here?” my friend asked when I confessed my inability to recall the route, her tone simultaneously incredulous and teasing.

It wasn’t just that I couldn’t remember how to get to her house; I couldn’t seem to remember how to get anywhere. For weeks after returning home, I would blindly turn onto a road, not knowing exactly where it led but sensing that it would somehow get me where I needed to go. I’d gaze with no recognition at houses and farms as I passed by on a narrow back road, assuming I would instinctively know where to turn when I got there. (Luckily, this was often true, although it gave me the distinct sensation of searching for the doorway in a pitch black room, my sight reduced to only what I could see through the narrow beam of my flashlight.) Once, I zoned out while driving, as one is prone to do when surrounded by miles and miles of corn fields, and when coming back to the present moment, I couldn’t remember where I was.  Rolling along at 60 miles per hour, I squeezed my fingers a bit tighter around the steering wheel and kept driving until a landmark reminded me of my current location and my future destination. It was startling, to say the least.

In addition to general directions, I forgot the names of former classmates (even those with whom I spent a great deal of time), certain English words and phrases like “flight attendant” and “accomplish” and “take advantage,” where to find things in my childhood home, what 60 miles per hour feels like on flat land, and how to make small talk in English. I was especially concerned to find that, in addition to these relatively minor details, I had apparently forgotten memorable moments that my friends could still recount with great clarity.  “Remember when…” they’d start and I’d shuffle through my memories looking for remnants of such events, usually finding nothing but endless darkness. As they continued to describe such and such trip or concert or gathering, a certain detail would sometimes jog my memory and it would all come rushing back to me in a great flood of sights and sounds, like a sudden revelation. But more often than not, I would find myself listening to these memories, which explicitly featured me, as if I had never been there at all. More and more, I had the sensation of living outside of myself. This is how it must feel to have amnesia, I would think. Hearing someone describe yourself to yourself as if you are a character in a story you’ve never heard.  More often, my reaction consisted of a kind of detached hysteria.  I’m losing it, I would think. This is how my spiral into total memory loss begins.

Memory loss is a very real and present problem in my family. There are four people in my family with neurodegenarative diseases, two of which have suffered memory impairment of varying severity. The idea of legitimately losing my memory terrifies me—who are you if not a compilation of your memories?—and as such, it’s something I actively worry about. So I decided to “reconnect” with my former self, even though I wasn’t quite sure what that should entail; I drove past my childhood home, my high school, and my old hangouts. I listened keenly to my friends tell stories of memorable moments from high school, college, and graduate school. I looked at pictures and read old emails I had absentmindedly filed away before and during Peace Corps. And somewhere along the way I also picked up Joshua Foer’s Moonwalking with Einstein.

You’ve likely heard of Joshua Foer before. He is one third of the famous Foer trio, all of whom are known for their practically prodigious literary and  journalistic accomplishments. He also won the U.S.A. Memory Championship in 2006, an experience that serves as the basis for his hugely successful first book. I was in Ecuador when Moonwalking with Einstein hit the shelves; at a time when I was paying by the minute at a local internet cafe and therefore more likely to be frantically writing emails or uploading blog posts than perusing U.S. new sources, Moonwalking with Einstein was so widely featured, critiqued, and discussed in U.S. publications that even I took notice of it. So it’s no surprise that two weeks into my reading challenge I found myself swiping through a Kindle edition of Foer’s book as my morning train bumbled towards downtown.

From the beginning, I was completely enthralled by Foer’s book, which opens on the final round of one of the world’s biggest memory competitions.  Much to his surprise and everyone else’s, Foer finds himself competing alongside dedicated “memory athletes” to claim the U.S. title. In the midst of vivid descriptions of his eccentric competitors, the tense competition that brings them all together, and an extended list of things the author regularly forgot previous to his memory training, Foer lays out his overarching reason for writing the book: 

I had once read that the average person squanders about forty days a year compensating for things he or she has forgotten…. Every day there seems to be more to remember…. With a memory like [that of a mental athlete], I imagined, life would be qualitatively different—and better.

I nodded as I dragged my finger across my Kindle screen, imagining how much better life would be if I could remember anything in the gray period that extends past the moment I landed in Ecuador three years ago.  

Using the U.S.A. Memory Championship and his personal memory training as the book’s frame, Foer discusses the brain’s many mysterious properties, how memories are made and then haphazardly stored away, the varied and powerful capabilities of our own minds, and why sometimes it is necessary to forget. After reading the first couple chapters, I already had great insight into my own memory loss.  As Foer explains, memories are composed of neurological connections, that is the synaptic links that are formed between one neuron and another. We also remember things by placing them in a web of other memories, so the more often we recall a memory, the more concrete and stable those synaptic connections between memories become.  According to Foer,

The nonlinear associative nature of our brains makes it impossible for us to consciously search our memories in an orderly way. A memory only pops directly into consciousness if it is cued by some other thought or perception–some other node in the nearly limitless interconnected web. So when a memory goes missing or a name gets caught on the tip of the tongue, hunting down can be frustrating and often futile.” But there is hope: “Each time we think about a memory, we integrate it more deeply into our web of other memories, and therefore make it more stable and less likely to be dislodged.

No wonder I can’t seem to remember much of my pre-Peace Corps life, I thought. The web of neurons comprising my pre-Peace Corps memories hadn’t been activated much before I moved home. How often during my Peace Corps service had I thought about “that one time sophomore year” when my friend dressed up as the Pope and invaded my dorm room? Or the touring Broadway show I saw with my mom before leaving the country? Or those hot, sticky summers during high school when I worked the friers at my small-town burger joint? There were certainly no details or points of recognition in Ecuador to prompt me to do so. Which also made me wonder: how long will it be before I forget the finer moments of my Ecuadorian life, now that there are very few details or environmental cues to trigger my memories of them?

As I sped through the book, I was continually surprised by the ways in which Foer’s research and observations touched my life. He tells the story of EP, an older man who, like my grandmother, can’t make new memories or remember the past experiences that shaped him, but somehow still maintains his genial personality and sense of self. Foer also describes the visual memory techniques he laboriously studied for months, revealing how said techniques not only relate to creativity but have the capacity to make us more creative. As I flipped from page to page, I suddenly found myself contemplating the many ways that learning these memory techniques could, as Foer said, improve the quality of my life.

Perhaps most interesting was Foer’s explanation of chronological landmarks and how they shape the way we perceive our own lives. Foer writes,

Our lives are structured by our memories of events. Event X happened just before the big Paris vacation. I was doing Y in the first summer after I learned to drive. Z happened the weekend after I landed my first job. We remember events by positioning them in time relative to other events.

As I examined my memories of Ecuador and my life before, I found that it was true; my strongest memories are always positioned in relation to another monumental occurrence. Before embarking on my great Peace Corps adventures, for example, my family and I vacationed in Florida; my memories of the hot sand, the bike ride I took with my sister and mother on a blinding sunny day, the cool, hotel air conditioning that enveloped my tired and sunburnt body afterwards are unparalleled by other vacation memories. By creating chronological landmarks, that is noteworthy memories usually comprised of major life moments—a big move, an engagement or a breakup, your first day at your “big boy” job, for example—we create the perception of an elongated life. As Foer says,

Monotony collapses time; novelty unfolds it….Creating new memories stretches out psychological time, and lengthens our perception of our lives.

Looking back, my two years of Peace Corps certainly do seem quite long, perhaps because every day I was doing something new and novel: learning more about Ecuadorian culture, traveling to a new, exotic (to me) locale, trying new foods, or facing challenges I had never even conceived of before.

By the time I finished Foer’s book, I had a whole new perspective on my life then and now. I reflect more on what I’ve learned in my first four months at my new job, I purposely create  novel experiences to break up my day to day, and I relive good (and sometimes even bad) memories in an effort to cement them in my mind.  After all, who doesn’t want a life that feels longer and more fully lived, even if we are simply changing our perception rather than adding extra years? 

On a final note: although scientists can document and track the firing of neurons through various brain scans, we still have no scientific evidence of memory. In other words, scientists have never been able to capture an image of memory on scans.  Have you ever thought about what a memory looks like? I certainly hadn’t, but I have on many occasions since then, which is perhaps evidence that Moonwalking with Einstein is nothing if not mind-blowing (corny pun intended). 

Intrigued? Check out Foer’s TED talk!

Do you have a great book recommendation? Feel free to leave it in the comments section!