Monday, September 22, 2008

Memories and facts

I attended three very different events over the past week that not only were extremely thought-provoking, they also all were related to historical perspective in some way.

The first was a presentation by the nation’s foremost historical photo detective. Maureen Taylor can determine the era, and often the exact year, of old photos by the type of photography used and the clothing and other items in a picture. She also may attempt to guess the story behind photos by the composition and body language of the people in them. For example, as she told my Sisters in Crime New England chapter, a wide gap between what appears to be a husband and wife in a family grouping might indicate emotional distance as well.

It concerns me to think about someone trying to interpret our photographs decades from now. To prevent this, maybe we should all stand close to loved ones in future photographs, label old pictures the way we choose, and destroy any that could be interpreted the wrong way. On the other hand, a photo detective’s stories might be much more interesting to our heirs than reality.

Speaking of reality, New York Times cultural reporter David Carr visited my local independent bookstore to give a fascinating talk about his new book “The Night of the Gun: A Reporter Investigates the Darkest Story of His Life. His Own.” Carr, a journalist who became a cokehead and alcoholic with 15 arrests and five trips to rehab, researched his past by interviewing (and videotaping) people from the dark periods in his life.

Carr says the “night of the gun” refers to a watershed event that made him realize he’d hit bottom. He recalls becoming so violent that a childhood friend pulled out a gun in self-defense. Only later did Carr learn through his interviews that he was the one with the gun, something he finds baffling because he doesn’t remember even owning one. While addiction obviously affected his perspective, it took methodical research to reveal the inaccuracies in his personal history.

If you interviewed people from your past, would they remember the stories of your life the same way you do? (Another reason to label those photographs?) The bigger question might be – whose historical perspective is the truth?

History is very important to the “American Treasure” Music Hall of Portsmouth, a 900-seat theater built in 1878 that celebrated the grand opening of its new lobby this past weekend. The challenge facing the oldest performing arts theater in NH and the 14th oldest in the United States was not only to remove tons of shale to extend its bottom floor into a magnificent vestibule, but also to create something new and magical while honoring its past. That history includes hosting a wide variety of performers and luminaries, including such diverse people as John Barrymore, Frederick Douglas, Buffalo Bill Cody, John Wayne and Pulitzer Prize winner Doris Kearns Goodwin. One solution was to design special wallpaper reflecting memorabilia from the Music Hall's archives: ticket stubs, advertisements for shows and newspaper clippings.

Think about your memorabilia. Does it accurately reflect your past? Does it need to? (And how would it look on wallpaper?)

I certainly don't have the answers to any of these questions. But these three events have me thinking about the many ways we recall the past and how memories shape who we are today, what we become and how we're remembered.

This is good to keep in mind when writing fiction but probably even more so when it comes to writing--and reading--non-fiction. As ABC television anchor Diane Sawyer reportedly said, "I'm always fascinated by the way memory diffuses fact." Me, too.

1 comment:

Pen N. Hand said...

I've often been amazed at the difference between the memories my sisters and I have of the same events.
They tell me I don't know what I'm talking about if this is true in families, it is also true on a broader scale.
The sad thing is when there is no one left who does remember, as with the real lives of our ancestors.
Very thought provoking.