Recently, I wrote about a hospital stay. I was ten. Left in s big city facility by my parents. I begged my mother not to leave. Of course, she had to and I was forced to find my way among strangers for the first time in my life. That’s if I don’t count beginning school, an event that was more catastrophic for me than for most children.
In the children’s ward, I made friends. Most were mobile, healthy for the most part. One boy was in an iron lung. This contraption appeared as harmless as a fallen garbage can but it wheezed like a dragon. And by ten, I knew a lot about polio, the disease that forced a boy my age inside the dragon.
I told my story as I remembered it, all the while, conscious that if I were to visit that children’s ward, and if it hadn’t been remodeled since my stay, that I likely wouldn’t recognize it. It’s vivid in my mind, its windows, walls, its cheery nursing staff, the pajama-clad children I scurried with after evening visiting hours. Yet, I know if I connected with one of the other children, whose names are all forgotten, they would say, “That’s not how I remember it.”
Our memories are uniquely ours. Much of what I write is personal experience. I can tell my story however I choose because it’s my story, my memory. The tough part of telling our stories is when our memories also belong to someone else, another family member, for instance. They may say, “The event didn’t happen like that at all.”
Five family members can attend the same event. Each one will leave with a different story. One has a conversation with a stranger that colors their entire experience. Another meets an old friend. One eavesdrops. One is aware of color, innuendo and drama. Another takes away facts only.
In writing our stories, we should be aware that someone else’s memory of the same event may differ. That doesn’t invalidate our take-away. It’s our story, after all. And we must write it, not to please another person, but to let the reader know how the memory shaped us.
William Zinsser says, “Memoir is how we validate ourselves.” Therefore, our experiences must always remain our story. We have to get over the idea that someone else will read them and disagree with our take on how events unfolded.
About telling our stories, Annie Dilliard writes, “The act of writing about an experience takes so much longer and is so much more intense than the experience itself that you’re left only with what you have written, just as the snapshots of your vacation become more real than your vacation.” We can write our personal stories freely if we refuse to care who reads them.
My hospital story ended up being about the first time I realized that good writing hums. In the tiny children’s ward library, I discovered The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Mark Twain’s words hummed in my chest – it was a marvelous discovery that lasted beyond my short hospital stay and remains with me today. I’m guessing that no one else in that hospital left with the same experience as I did.