I’ve ranted about this whole memory-isn’t-real thing before. It blew my mind then and it continues to set off miniature mushroom clouds of awe inside my brain when I circle back to the realization that every time we pull up a memory we are actively imagining it into being. (What kind of damage are all of those awe-explosions doing to the insides of my brain, I wonder?) But that’s not the real question that I want to ask. What I want to know is this: what makes a reading experience true for you? What makes a memory true at all for that matter?
Whoa, you say. That’s some heavy philosophical stuff for a Monday.
In grade six, I was a loner kid. Naturally, I read a whole lot of fiction and as a result, I found some pretty cool friends in all of those fictional characters. My favourite book of all time was Anne of Green Gables. I’m sure the prose was excellent. The plot grabbed my attention too. But what kept on bringing me back to this particular book was entirely different.
Confession: my first crush was on Gilbert Blythe from Lucy Maude Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables. Alongside Anne, I noticed his dark, curly hair, his hazel eyes and headstrong nature. He was the cutest, most awesome human being who ever lived to grade six Lauren. Except, of course, for the fact that he never really existed in the first place. (Don’t worry, I got over him. I’m happily married now to an awesome guy who is way cuter). Shhh! Don’t tell my book boyfriend!
But here’s the thing that gets me. At the time, my pre-pubescent little mind was all a flutter with my fabulous book boyfriend, because he felt so real. What made that experience real for me? Like any great read, the emotional payoff of any story is in the details. It happens when we are able to hover in the moment, see the sun dapple the ground where our book boyfriend sits and feel the thick, sweet lavender wafting on the breeze. The way that same breeze lifts up the fringe of his slightly wet hair, the corner of his shirt…
Okay, you get the picture.
It’s real, because we get to see all of the details. Writing to create a shared memory that holds emotional resonance is a strange phenomenon. (How many other little girls were dating my book boyfriend at the same time as me, for example?) Besides that point, there is also the notion that when we write down a story—whether it be pure fiction or memory distilled on the page, we are engaging in the act of fiction writing simply because there is no way to create a purely true memory. As soon as the true moment passes, that moment is gone. When we recall it again, it is actually a new memory that we call into being. So if we consider our experiences reading fiction, can it be that it is in some way pleasing because when we return to the moments on the page, they are fixed, yet detailed just as finely as a real, lived moment? There is the guarantee of a moment in time that lives forever just as it was intended without all of the messy re-imagined details. Maybe this is why fiction is so enjoyable? It’s predictable, sort of, but also manufactured to feel true.
What about cultures that don’t champion the written word the way we do in ours? How do those cultures perceive truth, memory and story? As a writer, I think that this idea is kind of freeing when you realize that truth or memory isn’t fixed in any way. When I write something, I am in the moment and I experience all of the details of the scene as if it were true. In a sense, for that moment, fiction becomes truth. As a reader, the same is true. Why else would I have a book boyfriend, am I right? Once again, I return to the phrase: truth is stranger than fiction. Is it? How can truth be stranger than fiction if, in fact, a remembered truth is itself fiction?
Have you ever had a book boyfriend (or girlfriend?) What makes an experience for you more real than others? What makes the stories that you love to read seem real to you?
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