Reminiscence vs. Memory: Writing Our Life as Story

For any writer contemplating writing his or her life story, I highly recommend “Your Life as Story: Writing the New Autobiography”, by Tristine Rainer. Whether it’s labeled as memoir, new autobiography, or any other descriptive expression, each of us has a life story only we are able to tell.

One of the interesting distinctions discovered while reading has sparked new insights about memory. Rainer highlights the distinction between memory and reminiscence. Here’s her most provocative introduction to the distinction between the two:

You have the power in the present to affect the past by how you remember it. (p.101) 

In other words, how I feel (about myself, my life, life in general, the weather, etc.) in the present moment will shape my memory of the past, my past in particular. 

Another startling insight she suggests is this:

…the point of view you assume when writing a memory actually changes the way you will remember it from then on.  (p. 102)

Sounds like alchemy to me, and I’m convinced by my own experience. My college roommate recently sent me a black-and-white group photo from our freshman year. It totally blew apart my long-held memory of myself as an introverted, withdrawn, and melancholy nineteen-year-old. 

In the photo, I’m standing at the very center of the four rows of female students and our elderly housemother (many of whom are seated). My facial expression tilts toward mischievous as I reach my right hand over the head of my “big sister” seated below. Making bunny ears? Not clear. My smile has a devilish twinkle. And my outfit? Certainly the most eye-catching of the group—a round-collared, long-sleeved white “blouse”, with a thin black neckerchief tied around my collar. Not quite the look of a feminine shrinking violet. Or the typical late ‘60’s female attire.

Reminiscence is the truth of now and then, not strictly the truth of then, Rainer explains. 

The recipe:

  • Start by relaxing into a dreamlike state of reverie
  • Evoke a personal memory fragment
  • Mix it with self-guided imagination as details surface and doubt sets in about their veracity
  • When in doubt, make it up, improvise!

Using this photo from 1969, if I close my eyes and guide my 70-year old self back to her 19-year old freshman self, forgotten memories emerge as reminiscences. 

How I loved “dressing up” as a child—recreating myself as a sophisticated grown-up woman costumed in my mother’s high-heeled yellow-dyed sandals, swooping around the room in her lemon-colored chiffon cocktail dress. Fake rhinestone earrings clipped to my ears and a matching bracelet draped around my wrist.

The young adult “Steffie” in that black-and-white photo hasn’t forgotten her flair for “dressing up”. As a newcomer to this all-female exclusive college, she isn’t shy about costuming herself in an eye-catching outfit different from her peers.

Reminiscing further, I think back to my favorite authors back then—Virginia Woolf, who had her own unique style of dress and philosophical reasons for it. Wikipedia states:

Clothes…change our view of the world and the world’s view of us…clothes…wear us and not we them…they mould our hearts, our brains, our tongues to their liking.”

 And what about the rebellious dress of another favorite author of mine, Edith Wharton? Wikipedia states: 

She rejected the standards of fashion and etiquette that were expected of young girls at the time…she considered these fashions superficial and oppressive.

Both of these women rejected representing the typical female of their time by their clothing. As did I. Both Wharton and Woolf loosened the restrictions on themselves and crossed gender-stereotyped female identities by dressing in distinctive, sometimes masculine outfits. As did I.

Here’s the point: In this photo described above, it appears that I too sought to loosen gender boundaries by my clothing choices. The reasons why would demand a much more intense session of reverie and discovery. What matters here is that these discoveries came to my consciousness not through memory per se (the photo in front of my eyes), but by way of my reminiscences attached to it— my favorite play as a child, my literary “heroines” of that era. And their influence on my clothing choices as a young woman.

And like alchemy, these discoveries (call them epiphanies if you like) strike me as both transformative and enchanting— that young adult “Steffie” was anything but a morose and reserved child-woman in front of her peers.  Her clothing choices showed a creative and playful energy that came to represent her unique style and identity.

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