How Goodreads Helped Me Find My Memories

An unsettling thing happened when I went home to Colorado for the holidays last year. While my family sat around a fire in Summit County, trading stories and recent news, my sister asked me about a time she and I had shared that she remembered vividly.

“You don’t remember that?” She stared at me emphatically, as if asking the question would light the match to the memory that had clearly grown cold and damp in my mind. No such luck. In fact, I couldn’t recall even a portion of the memory she described to me—a memory that wasn’t from too long ago, but distant enough that it’s not tangible anymore, something vaguely familiar.

I don’t know when I started noticing gaps in my memories of things, but it became more pervasive and embarrassing in my early 20s. Large swaths of time suddenly go dark, dissolve from within me. It starts small, with a drive home from a late shift that I couldn’t really describe, to a song that sounded like something I knew but couldn’t pinpoint who it was. People waving and saying, “How are you?” who I didn’t recognize or couldn’t name. Then more of those questions:

“Remember that time?” “What year was that?” “When did you get that tattoo?” Significant portions of my own timeline were missing. I became skilled in leading conversations away from my frustration and increasing anxiety over these lost portions of time. I started leaving myself notes around the apartment.

“Don’t dry the tan, wool shirt!” “Remember your sister’s birthday is on the 13th, CALL HER.” “There is spinach in the fridge, if you don’t eat it, it will go bad and you will feel like a failure again.” While some of these were reminders about small tasks, I started to wonder if this was how my life was just going to be now. The problem for me wasn’t just why I couldn’t remember, but how I could get these memories back.

My partner and I were talking about books we had read in 2019; books that blew us away and books that we wished we had put down sooner. I knew I had read stellar books last year, but I couldn’t pinpoint those titles. I reached for my phone, as many of us who need to remember something right away do, and opened my Goodreads app. My “2019” shelf sat, neatly and chronologically ordered for me to peruse. Month by month, the books I had slogged through and the books that shone brilliantly awakened in my memory, but something else happened too. I began to remember other parts of my life in those months, what I was doing while reading The Song of Achilles, or where I had been sipping a particularly delicious sticky rice tea in Sellwood while devouring La Fronterra in June. One by one, my memories filtered back in, and as I looked further and further through my Goodreads archive, pieces of 2017 and 2016 came together before me.

It turns out, it’s not just me; our memories are getting worse and that’s largely due to the
Google effect, in which the ability to look up or search is so readily available to us that our minds have “decreased dependency on internal memory storage.” I can’t recall the amount of times I’ve been thinking of a word for something or a fact about so-and-so and just Googled it. While I was briefly euphoric at the discovery that Goodreads had carefully catalogued the past three years of my life for me with dates and metadata to support the timeline, I wonder about the accuracy of archival memory. It’s unsettling to consider that memory may become something that lives on a server farm somewhere, susceptible to be infiltrated, altered, or vanished. But there is a rather simple solution: write more. Research has shown that writing things down is essential to memory retention. Perhaps the digital cataloguing of the books I’ve read in some way has captured those memories within the pages of those books. In rereading the titles, I am able to relive those parts of my life with more clarity, and to engage again with my life through the “written” lists of how my past was spent.

Editing Trauma

Writing, by nature, is emotional. Truly wonderful pieces of writing always come from a genuine and engaged author. Authors and their writing are so intertwined that it is nearly impossible to edit your own book—which is why editors are so integral to the publishing process. William Faulkner said, “In writing, you must kill all your darlings.” A good editor knows that this process is sometimes painful to the author because their words are their babies. How, then, is an editor to approach nonfiction trauma manuscripts when an author’s words are their nightmares? When submitting a story that includes traumatic events, especially real-life events, an author bares their soul on the page. It can be a form of therapy for some; a way to get their truth out to the world. But it still needs to be edited if it is going to be a published piece of work.

Publisher and founder of Forest Avenue Press, Laura Stanfill, shared her experiences giving and receiving feedback about traumatic events with me. There are ways we can edit trauma with kindness and without lowering our standards. Based on our chat, I’ve divided this post into two sections: the mechanics of a trauma scene and what to look for, and how an editor should deliver feedback on a traumatic scene.

The Mechanics: An editor must consider how the traumatic event or scene fits within the narrative structure of the story. According to Stanfill, sometimes a trauma scene can be really “loud” if it follows a key plot point. It can overshadow other events that the author might not intend it to.

Another consideration is the pacing of the scene. Does it match what is happening to the character? As an author herself, Stanfill said that pacing is hard because memory can slow or speed things up, and the velocity of the read needs to guide the audience through a similar pattern in order to feel authentic.

Details are an important factor as well. There needs to be enough detail to convince the reader that it is the author’s story to tell, but they also need to mind the “gap” that trauma creates in a person’s memory. Too confident of a retelling can feel like someone else’s trauma or, even worse, trauma sensationalized. There is also the question of chronology. How an author chooses to tell the story can make it feel truer to the experience because memories can sometimes come through in fragments and flashes.

The Delivery: An editor needs to have some sort of trust built between them and the author before offering feedback on their darkest secrets. The author needs to feel like they can be open and vulnerable throughout the process in order to add what details may need to be added, or to cut details that could stir legal trouble. This honesty and vulnerability happens when both the author and editor start from a place of respect.

As an editor, Stanfill starts building that trust and respect in the acquisitions phase by telling the author everything she loves about the manuscript. Then, during the developmental editing stage, along with notes on structure and plot, she reiterates how she sees the book as a whole and what positive qualities she sees. As far as what doesn’t work, Stanfill shared that she makes notes in her margins to look back on when giving feedback. This is to make sure it is consistent, author-centric, feeling-driven (concerned with how the writing makes her feel) feedback. Stanfill added that she gives notes—through email or sometimes a phone call—with an awareness of the toll dredging up old, repressed memories takes on the author.

Sometimes it’s as simple as saying: I see you. This doesn’t work. This does work.

Memory and Truth: How to Classify Nonfiction Titles

I stared at a tattered childhood Christmas picture. It was the living room of my grandparent’s old house in Atlanta. Wrapping paper covered the floor, my aunts and uncles were still young, and my grandparents were still alive. I took in every detail, hoping the picture would be the catalyst that would allow me to mine forgotten memories. I began to remember little things: the smell of the house, the pattern of the linoleum, the weeping willow in the front yard, and eventually, a story emerged. The question is, are memories true? Can I verify that the events I mined and cobbled together are how things actually happened? Can anyone? If we can’t verify how the events occurred, how can we classify a memoir as nonfiction?

Nonfiction is generally considered anything that is not fiction. This includes reference books, travel books, cookbooks, self-help books, and narrative nonfiction (to name a few). Narrative nonfiction is often misunderstood, as it is fact that reads like fiction. It’s also called literary journalism, fact-based storytelling, and creative nonfiction. The word “creative” can be misleading as it implies storytelling, which is often misconstrued as fiction or historical fiction. Unlike an academic paper, reference book, or journalistic article, in a narrative nonfiction piece the research is seamlessly woven into the storyline. It tends to have characters, a plot, an arc, high stakes, compelling writing, and many other characteristics of fiction. However, a narrative nonfiction writer is not allowed to fill in the blanks with anything that isn’t true.

The two predominant forms of narrative nonfiction are the essay and the memoir. The essay is a conversational examination of a topic or idea and often incorporates research, experiential accounts, interviews, and anecdotes. The memoir is the story of a life, a section of a life, or an event. The memoir is usually written as one sweeping true story or a collection of true short stories. It is a factual account told in a story or narrative format.

If that’s the case, why does nonfiction allow something as unreliable as memories? The idea is that the writer is truly recounting the memory, not whether or not it actually occurred. The experience is born out of the memory of the event. A memoir is a recounting of memory. It has to be a truthful recounting of only what is remembered and what is researched.

While the autobiography offers an encompassing picture of the subject’s life, the memoir offers a glimpse, or pieces, or a complete accounting of a certain part of a life. Trauma narratives such as Man’s Search for Meaning by Victor E. Frankl can shed a new light on atrocities. Travel narratives such as On the Road by Jack Kerouac and Travels with Charley by John Steinbeck can give the readers a snapshot of a place in time. Immersive writing such as Friday Night Lights by Buzz Bissinger is another form of narrative nonfiction where the author immerses themselves in a place for an extended period of time.

Historical fiction is often confused with narrative nonfiction. There is an ongoing debate as to where one ends and another begins. Historical fiction is a researched story based in facts, but the blanks are often filled in with a fictional account of what the character was thinking or feeling, made-up dialogue, and scenes that happened behind closed doors.

Gone with the Wind by Margaret Mitchell is a well-known example of historical fiction. It is based on a factual account of the civil war. However, Mitchell made up characters, scenes, dialogue, etc. The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot is an excellent example of narrative nonfiction. Skloot wrote an investigative and historical account of the He-La cell. She traced the cells back to their origin—a woman named Henrietta Lacks. Skloot expertly laid out a factual account based on nearly a decade of research, while seamlessly creating a compelling narrative.

From the beginning of time, people have written true stories. Whether they are documenting events, examining a topic, or remembering the lilt of their grandmother’s dialect, narrative nonfiction allows writers to creatively craft the truth of their experience.

The Power of Stories: Narrative Psychology in Publishing

Beyond the ability to hold an enthusiastic reader’s rapt attention or gain a bestseller’s widespread audience, stories have a power that most people take for granted. They contribute to the way we perceive and process our own experiences. Psychologists who study this power call it narrative psychology.

Narrative psychology is described as a burgeoning field of psychology because it is relatively new; the term was coined only thirty years ago. According to this field, humans deal with their own experiences by creating stories and by listening to the stories of others. In narrative psychology, a story is another word for the human experience.

Humans are attracted to stories. Long before publishing or writing existed, there was storytelling. The oral tradition saw stories recited out loud, spoken around a fire, performed in front of an audience, and shared across generations.

Our brains can process information better through narrative structure. One highly effective memory tool is known as the story method. It is possible to quickly memorize a random list of words if they are embedded in a made-up story. Conversely, information presented in the form of a story is easier to remember than if that information is simply put in a list.

It all has to do with the brain. When someone reads or hears a list of information presented without any narrative structure, the language processing centers activate; however, much more of the brain activates when someone processes information presented as a story. The story’s content is what activates these brain centers. If the story recalls the smell of a delicious feast or imagines other senses, the sensory cortex activates. If the story talks about falling down a hole or other movement, the motor cortex activates. If the story talks about the death of a loved one or other emotions, the amygdala activates. This widespread activation across the brain leaves a lasting effect. As we listen to stories, our brains activate according to the sensations and emotions in the story, and we effectively feel the events of the story for ourselves.

Telling and listening to stories helps us experience and reexperience things that happen to us and others. Narrative psychology uses storytelling as a part of therapy, which is why group therapy is often prescribed to veterans with PTSD. Telling their stories and hearing the stories of others helps promote understanding, which leads to healing and wisdom, allowing them to deal with their own trauma and grief after war.

But storytelling is not just for memorization or therapy. There are benefits to regularly reading stories in books, even if they are fantastic or not trauma based. Regular reading habits have long been correlated with increased performance in school and empathy. Reading stories is good for the brain and for our emotional well-being.

One of Ooligan Press’s forthcoming books,A Series of Small Maneuvers by Eliot Treichel, is a good example of narrative psychology at work. In the narrative, fifteen-year-old Emma suffers from guilt and grief over her father’s death. Much of the narrative itself is her retelling of the story, something that promotes her ability to emotionally process the tragedy. Following Emma’s experience, there is the potential for readers to process their own trauma and grief, and experiencing Emma’s pain in the narrative will promote empathy in readers.

With all stories, there is an important dialogue that takes place between the writer, the characters, the reader, and even the publisher. Stories of any kind are an important cultural contribution to human experience and human growth. As publishers, we at Ooligan strive to produce stories worth telling. Just the simple act of reading can help someone learn something new, while away several hours, or begin to comprehend their own experiences—stories have power.