I’m wearing my editor hat today. As often happens when I do developmental editing, I notice places where the story is skinny. I perceive areas of “skimmed memory.”
Skimmed memories on the page are a red flag that the author doesn’t want to return to this experience.
It’s tempting to skim a difficult memory to avoid pain. It’s so much easier to pull out the black box recording of this life-crash moment. Why relive it? I’ll just say the thing I always say when people ask me about it.
But what would happen if we allowed ourselves to revisit the moment on the page?
I’ll tell you what would happen. We would experience a fresh stab of pain . . . but we’d also receive new insight. Life is complicated, whereas our skimmed and reported stories are not.
Today, Sam writes:
“My marriage with Sabrina was doomed from the start. After treating me like the man of her dreams, she announced on our honeymoon that she had made a mistake.” Sam goes on to write, in a single paragraph, all that was wrong with the marriage.
Clear-cut judgments are easy. We lose the complexity and ambiguity and interest that both life and story share.
Yet I understand. Who wants to return to these memories, add detail, reach for honesty, and find things were truly complicated?
All the same, I’ve worked with Sam for a while, and he is a strong, courageous writer. I know he will take the time to investigate this paragraph. Precious years and intricate wisdom are here to be excavated. Perhaps three or four new pages will emerge.
Sam could show us how they drove for hours after the wedding, when the hotel lost their reservation. He might show that honeymoon breakfast table where the waiter spilled a mimosa on Sabrina’s dress. He could show Sabrina, her hair straggling and her nerves frayed, saying words she didn’t mean. He could reveal his own short temper, and how he barked at the waiter.
Writing our stories demands honesty. This is true whether we build fiction or remain in the territory of memoir. When we revisit an experience, letting go of ready-made judgments, we encounter the stunning beauty of authentic storytelling.