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The fog of memory in a digital age

16 Feb

Lately I’ve been working on a novel with a plot line based loosely on events in my life almost 20 years ago. My recollection of the story has one narrative and set of characters — some are still friends, some I’ve lost touch with, and some are gone. Memory is subjective and I’ve never claimed to have a great one. I remember useless trivia but forget people and things from my own life. However, even two decades ago, everyone in my story was active online. So, I wrote for a few weeks from my memories, then I went to the Internet.

Wow. What had been cloudy to me is slowly becoming clear and my reaction to this is complicated.

Through the mist

I thought the story had taken place over several years. It hadn’t. I had been struggling with the details of the timeline, yet there were some things I could verify, like when a movie was released or when a CD or book was available. I searched for those and started making corrections. I discovered that someone had already written part of the same story in an anthology. I read that and it confirmed the dates I had found. In the end, it turned out that the framework of the story had lasted 22 months, not 4-5 years.

Then, I opened some long-ignored backup folders and looked at dates on old, low rez photographs. Instead of clarity, this led to more confusion.  So many things that loom large in my memory overlapped in such a short period of time. It’s shocking to me now.  I went through month by month and made notes based on the evidence, rearranging the list of scenes that had taken a different shape in my mind.

This morning I did what I had been dreading: I read through a dozen logs of chats between a friend and I, saved from that period of 1996-97.  The almost random nature of the conversation hints at what I know was speedy banter between two adept typists who had developed their own way of communicating — vulgar and raw and full of cultural references. The logs paint a very unflattering picture of me. I was single, struggling with illness, juggling freelance gigs and trying to make ends meet in a very expensive area. But, I was also manipulative, insecure, deeply unhappy, immature, and narcissistic. I can see how my attempts to be the Cool Girl may have even encouraged some very dangerous behavior in my friend.

It’s going to take me some time to process what I rediscovered and in the end, I’m sure it’ll make for a better story. The “me” character doesn’t feel like me anymore, because she isn’t: she is a fictionalized version of me at a very different time in my life. It’s a lot easier to let go of my ego and let her be the flawed person she needs to be, growing a personality distinct from my own. On the other hand, I have to deal with the reality of who I was and wonder, now, who I am.

Assembling the timeline and reading those chat logs allowed me to piece together the facts again, so that I can step away from them and be sure my novel is a work of fiction. If I wasn’t writing, would it be better to just remember the softer, slower version of that time? For me, I think the answer is yes. Relationships that have become more meaningful with time stretched out lazily in my memory. I have happy remembrances of times between the chat logs but they are now punctuated by those harsh jabs of reality. When we can easily archive so much of our lives, and some people are actively recording every minute they can, maybe we need to consider what benefits we get from shifting memories.

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