David Leach: What does it mean now?
Nonfiction writers have long known what neuroscientists only later confirmed: that human memory is less like a computer hard-drive, with our data perfectly preserved for instant retrieval, and more like a box of Play-Doh, always mixed-up and malleable.
Every act of remembering strengthens and yet subtly reshapes our attachment to our past. Psychologists call this perpetual mental sculpting “reconsolidation”. You can never pick up the same memory twice.
For authors, it’s worth exploring why certain sense details—the taste of grandma’s borscht, the scent of dry grass, the chorus of a long-forgotten pop song—conjure vivid and evolving associations in the present. Memoirists talk about following such clues on an elusive quest for “emotional truth”, a more eloquent way to say reconsolidation.
So, to be true to both our biology and our craft, creative nonfiction writers ought to ask not simply “What happened then?” but also “What does it mean now?” And then try to answer on the page: “How has my memory of the past changed—and how has the act of remembering it changed me?”
David Leach is an associate professor of writing and director of the Technology & Society program at the University of Victoria, as well as the author of Fatal Tide: When the Race of a Lifetime Goes Wrong (Penguin Canada) and the former president of the Creative Nonfiction Collective.
Photo credit: Ben Moore.
David Leach is a member of the Creative Nonfiction Collective (CNFC). To learn more or become a member, click here.
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