Memoirs and Research: When Memories Aren’t Enough

February 3, 2023 § 14 Comments

By Ronnie Blair

My memory is clear. On a Sunday night when I was a child in the 1960s, my family gathered around our black-and-white TV to watch the much-anticipated moment when the Beatles made their first appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show.

I sat breathlessly on the floor near the TV screen, not wanting to miss a moment. A few feet away a coal stove provided heat for me and for our tiny two-bedroom rental house. Just to my right was the entrance to the small kitchen where my mother whipped up banana pudding and other delights. But at this moment my mind was far from any sugary desserts that the kitchen offered because Sullivan was introducing those four guys from Liverpool and young women in his audience were starting to scream.

It’s a wondrous childhood memory of a pivotal moment in pop culture history. Unfortunately, it is faulty. The Beatles made their first appearance on Sullivan’s show on Feb. 9, 1964. My family moved from that two-bedroom house in 1963. Somehow, my brain mixed its signals, taking the image of me watching TV in one living room and melding it with me watching the Beatles in another house altogether.

In the grand scheme of things, no big deal. But, for anyone writing a memoir, it serves as a warning about how memories play tricks on us. When I was a journalist, skeptical people in newspaper newsrooms, understanding the need to question everything, liked to say: “If your mother says she loves you, check it out.” For memoirists, that can be adapted to: “If your memory tells you anything, check it out.”

Memoirs certainly are about our memories, whether the memoirist is conveying stories from childhood, the first year in a career, or a traumatic episode that changed their lives. But memories aren’t enough and need to be supplemented with good hard research.

Sometimes that’s because, like with the Beatles incident, memories betray us and research helps us avoid errors, small and large. There is also this: We add depth to our memoirs when we include historical, geographical, cultural, or other information. How many miles long is that river? Why did the city council change your hometown’s name a century ago? What TV shows were you likely watching while recovering from an illness in fifth-grade?

In one part of my memoir, I was writing about Christmas of 1966. I remembered it snowing that year, but could my memory have confused 1966 with another year? Or, is it possible that my memory just added snow because we associate Christmas with snow? Research showed that not only did it snow on Christmas Eve in 1966, but the eastern part of the country endured a major storm that created all sorts of havoc. My memory was confirmed and I added an extra layer of detail to my tale that I otherwise would not have had.

One of the great advantages of the age we live in is that so much information is available online. As long as we are careful about what sources we use, we don’t necessarily have to make a trip to the library or write to a government agency and wait for weeks to receive the document we requested. A Google search can even reveal source material we didn’t know existed, and so never would have asked for.

Two examples: A U.S. Department of Labor report about a 1959 steel strike helped me fill in some blanks about why my father was laid off from his coal mining job that year. A newspaper article about a long-closed theme park fleshed out details about the park that my memories from a 1965 visit could never have conjured.

Books also can be useful. My late father served in World War II and I wanted to write about his experiences, but the meager stories he told while alive and the dates and places on his discharge papers didn’t amount to a lot of material. Several war books came to my rescue. For example, the discharge papers said that, among other things, my father participated in the New Guinea campaign. What happened there? What would he have seen and suffered through? I discovered two books specific to that campaign that gave me the answers.

Be sure to cite your sources. In addition to crediting mine within the text, I included a bibliography.

Of course, you won’t be able to check everything. Your memoir likely will include anecdotes about events that happened to you and there exists no government record, newspaper article, or book that will confirm or refute them. As a youngster, I borrowed a friend’s pony one afternoon, an incident that became a humorous tale in my memoir, providing a lesson on being careful about what you wish for.

Once the animal’s owner left, it was just me, the pony, and an otherwise empty pasture, so I had absolutely nothing to go on but memory – reliable or not.

Ronnie Blair is lead writer in public relations for Advantage Media Group. He is also author of the memoir Eisenhower Babies: Growing Up on Moonshots, Comic Books, and Black-and-White TV.

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§ 14 Responses to Memoirs and Research: When Memories Aren’t Enough

  • […] Memoirs and Research: When Memories Aren’t Enough […]

  • Here’s another example of how fact-checking can add to one’s memoir.

    In my junior year of college, my best friend and I rented an off-campus apartment from a man who commented after he interviewed us, “You look like you come from good families.” (He himself was So-and-so III and acted like his family had come over on the Mayflower.) Years later, I read in my alumni magazine that this same man had been arrested for running a prostitution ring at the college. I am not making this up!

    Was he ever convicted? When I researched this, I was able to confirm that my memory of his arrest was accurate, and although the guy was acquitted, I learned that he was convicted of possessing cocaine and marijuana. This enabled me to turn up the dial on the irony of the man’s interview with us.

    A very minor point in a book-length memoir, but you don’t want to be the author who gets caught in a lot of minor inaccuracies in reviewers’ comments.

  • Well done. [Surprising how many of our memories lap.]

  • camilla sanderson says:

    Thank you, Ronnie, for the reminder of the importance of checking facts when writing memoir. However – and this may be somewhat controversial and provocative of me – but it makes me wonder about the difference between what women value vs. what men value in memoir. Of course factual accuracy is important, but for me, what is more important is the “narrator interiority” of the main protagonist – i.e. the one writing the memoir.

  • raelynpracht says:

    Thank you for this! I recently watched a documentary on this very subject. It is quite fascinating.

  • Thank you Ronnie! I think a lot about which version of my family story I tell in my memoir. I have kept a journal since I was 14. I have pages of writing, dates, tales, ticket stubs, and notes to consult. There is a version of my high school years told by a close family friend which is entirely wrong. When I encountered her version of my life, told by this person, I was horrified. After unsuccessfully trying to correct her, I questioned myself-could I really have left town before I graduated from high school, as she claimed I had? Here is where photographs and yearbooks and newspaper clippings come in handy. Of course, ultimately, my memoir is my version, but it is my version of my life alone. Others may have other versions and I have to learn to live with that ambiguity, right?
    xo, S

  • Kresha Richman Warnock says:

    Ha! Beatles on the Ed Sullivan show is one of those moments our generation will never forget… But you’re right. I included a mention in my memoir and definitely had to go back to check details.
    I love the way doing that — researching what was happening in your city, the country, the world — can make the writing so much richer. Now doing my first major revision, I know I’m going to have to cut some of the clutter of details I’ve added. But I believe, and this is me learning by doing, that even the stuff I cut somehow resonates in the background of the story. It’s like when you’re teaching a college class: you want to know a specific topic way better than your students. You don’t have to include all the information specifically in the class, because it might be too much detail, or not even relevant. The knowledge helps you as the teacher can express the topic more clearly.

    • Ronnie Blair says:

      Great point! I cut a lot of things as well, but you are right that even the research that was left out still helped with the overall result.

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