Suzanne and I met through AWP’s Writer-to-Writer mentorship program last spring. She told me she saw something in my application that made her feel like we’d be a great match. As an emerging lyric essayist, the most pressing question I had for her was how she could possibly go about structuring her debut memoir, The Memory Sessions, when she had virtually no recollection of what happened until age twelve. How do memoirists continue writing their stories when they can’t accurately remember what even occurred?
With only photos, newspaper clippings, leftover artifacts found in storage, and the memories of her sisters and mother to rely on, Smith focuses in The Memory Sessions on the small moments, piecing together “borrowed memories,” and ends by sharing her research, recovery, and investigative findings on memory loss during and after a traumatic event. She also strongly encourages other writers and readers to “interrogate their own memories.”
I had the privilege of working with Suzanne in a mentor/mentee capacity for three wonderful months and she was instrumental in helping me begin to find the shape of my manuscript. Her lyric, experimental memoir The Memory Sessions was published in August 2019 by Bucknell University Press. It is a beautiful examination of family, loss, and the psychology of memory.
The Rumpus: Jamaica Kincaid wrote, “…yet a memory cannot be trusted, for so much of the experience of the past is determined by the experience of the present.” Joan Didion wrote, “It begins, of course, in what we remember.” As an author who has written a book about memory and loss, does one of these quotes resonate with you more than the other?
Suzanne Farrell Smith: I’m going to start with the Didion quote. As somebody who only remembered so very little when I started writing, this idea of “[starting] with what you remember” was so terrifying to me.
When I was in my first graduate school program, an early assignment was to write a memoir essay. I naively thought that it had to be a childhood memory, so that meant I had to write about the only things I remembered: first, the night my father was killed by a drunk driver; second, the house fire that destroyed so much of our belongings. So, instead of writing about what I remembered, because it felt too traumatic for me to enter at that time, I wrote to my sisters and we picked the topic of family dinners, thinking that it would be more fun. They sent me all of these memories of different dinners that we had in our home, going out to get pizza, [but] then—of course—their memories were colored by the two tragedies. Here’s what dinner was like after Daddy died and We had to go get pizza after the fire so often because we just didn’t have another way to eat.
I wrote the essay and it was all borrowed memories. It was such an interesting exercise for me—I felt very distant from the material, but I really enjoyed trying to craft it into something cohesive. I find it fascinating what we don’t remember as well, especially as siblings, and I find it fascinating how we see each other in terms of memory. My sister, Debbie, is the person who everybody would say remembers the most, but she would say, “What?! That’s not true at all. My memory really haunts me for how much I don’t remember.”
Rumpus: And that kind of leads to the Jamaica Kincaid quote, right? Because I remember a lot of things, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that’s exactly what happened.
Smith: The second quote is so clearly relevant to how I’ve come to understand memory after having done all of the research, writing, reflecting, and revising that went into the book. I have come to believe that when talking about memory, there’s a difference between accuracy and truth. Accuracy is what actually happened. It’s those bare facts—it’s what you were wearing, it’s the day of the week something happened, words that were said, a particular object that was thrown down to the floor. This is what, in memory research, has given memory a false definition, that memory is a recording on a video camera or a memo that you can then play back. But that’s not true.
There may be an accurate kernel that’s inside the memory, but, as the experience is remembered, it’s layered by new emotions. New emotions and new revelations and new circumstances keep adding layers and layers and layers on top of that little accurate kernel, and those layers keep building, and your life keeps going, and the layers keep going up and up and up, and the original experience becomes deeper and deeper and deeper. That’s what Kincaid talks about—the experience of the present is affecting the experience of the past—that is totally true. The present mind has to do an awful lot of digging to get back through all those layers to the original experience. Now I don’t say to myself, “I can’t trust my memory.” I now say to myself, “Why am I remembering it wrong? What is happening in my life that’s making me want to remember it a different way?”
Rumpus: I know you feel pride in the fact that your book was categorized as not only as a memoir, but also as a psychology text. Can you talk more about why that is such a source of pride for you?
Smith: I had been a sociology major in undergrad and was drawn to the social sciences; I think in a lot of my writing, I’ve brought that in. I love learning something about the way my own brain works when I’m reading a piece of creative nonfiction. It was, oddly, fun for me reading the psychology textbooks. I met with a psychology professor—an expert in memory—and I just loved listening to him answer my questions about memory and tell me how my brain works with memory or doesn’t work. Both of those were valuable to the understanding of memory. I knew I wanted to produce something that somebody else out there like me would love reading, too, and would learn something from. I love true stories. My preference is for true stories that teach me something about my brain, or my body, or the society in which I live, or a society I don’t live in. Just teach me something new.
Rumpus: Memoir plus psychology/social sciences—there is that hybridity to your book. Many recent memoirs are pushing back from the traditional structure readers have come to know when they hear the word. How do you feel about this shift?
Smith: I am so excited by the shift because, on a personal level, it welcomes somebody like me into this container which didn’t fit me before. I remember being in high school and college and consuming childhood memoirs like candy. I loved them then, I love them now, but I always thought, “I’m reading them because I’m trying to borrow these other childhoods to kind of get a sense of what childhood might’ve been like universally.” I always thought, “I could never do that. I don’t have anything to offer.” The container is bigger now and accepts more than the traditional childhood narrative. I think it’s more welcoming, and I also think that it’s just more interesting. And I really have to emphasize this: I don’t wish to see the container stay the same size and simply replace the traditional with the hybrids, the new, and the experimental. We’re talking about memoir. It should be as big as all of humanity.
Rumpus: There’s room for all of it. There are readers for all of it.
Smith: And that makes me so excited because I get to then expand my own reading from the traditional and read all these other stories that maybe would not have otherwise been told and published—stories about people’s lives that I care about and that I want to read about. But if they had this idea that it had to be told in this more traditional narrative and didn’t write those stories, I don’t get to learn about them! And that’s a loss. Not only a loss for me, but a loss for every other reader of memoir who seeks to learn from other people’s lives. And as a writer, the craft aspect is exciting because I’ll read something and realize, “Oh, I didn’t think of doing it that way. What a fascinating new approach for putting together a memoir!” This past summer I read Tyrese L. Coleman’s How to Sit. She starts with a note: “Memory is not static. Memories are not facts.” She says her book “challenges the concept that a distinction [between nonfiction and fiction] needs to be made when the work is memory-based.” And I just have to ask, do you think that book would’ve been published fifteen years ago?
Rumpus: Exactly! I’m really seeing some exciting books out there right now. You spoke about the confidence you gained from your former mentor, Sue William Silverman. She told you it would be okay to write the book without memory because you were writing about your search for memory. It reminds me of writers who are not yet ready to write about a traumatic event—instead, they will write around it and talk about not being able to talk about the trauma.
Smith: Which I’ve seen in your work.
Rumpus: Thank you. So we have these disparate sections and within those disparate sections are these small moments that always lead to something much, much bigger. The moments that come to mind for me are your mother’s clock collection, which leads to daylight saving time, which leads to the anniversary of your father’s death. It goes back to what we were talking about earlier with immersive writing—how immersive writing and trauma writing can go hand in hand. Why is that? Why do you think it’s so effective when you’re writing about personal experiences in dealing with trauma or the aftermath of trauma to focus on those small moments? And what does it do for the reader?
Smith: For me as a writer, it’s simply about feeling more safe and about feeling more capable. I think that when trauma happens, your life blows up to all these different strands that no longer feel like a cohesive whole, and all the strands are suddenly really visible to you. Things that used to just kind of hold together, threaded, like they were your clothing, are now in these separate pieces, and they’re all over and each one is buzzing and vibrating and may even seem threatening.
When I think about myself, if I’m standing post-trauma, the idea of wrapping my arms around all of those threads all at the same time and trying to make meaning out of it is terrifying. But the idea of ignoring it all as much as I can and grabbing just the one and looking really, really closely at it, I feel like I can tame it. And I feel like I can reclaim agency over it. I love to read those kinds of pieces, too, because understanding what it means to me and then seeing what it means to the author makes me feel like I’m in conversation with the author about how we’re making meaning of this thing. I think this relates to sentimentality and how if you tell readers straight up how to feel, it can alienate readers. If you focus on the small moments, as a reader and a writer, you’re just two people observing this thing.
Rumpus: And you’re still guiding the reader that way. You don’t have to tell someone how to feel. I would also add that as a writer writing about a post-traumatic event, for me, it gives me the power. I can’t control what happened, I can’t control how I processed it, but I can focus on that one moment, like the color of the flowers that I saw. And that’s what people who suffer from anxiety or panic attacks, for example, are taught to do. They check in with their bodies. What am I hearing? What am I seeing? What am I smelling? They go through all the senses.
Smith: There’s one thing that we were just talking about in terms of being a reader and a writer and close observation together. That’s very much how I view mentorship and being a close reader of one writer’s work and being a conversation about it. It’s so much fun. I really do feel like you’re two people who have the same ultimate goal in mind. What is the meaning of this thing that happened? And how best to find that meaning, and then how best to craft that meaning into this prose. And I just really love, especially with your work, being part of that. It’s a privilege. You invited me into your lab, I get to be there, and I get to wear the goggles, and I get to use the microscope… It’s still your work, it’s still your story to tell, but more than being a reader of the published version, it’s really exciting to get to be part of it as it’s being crafted. A published piece of work sits on top of this mountain of all these choices and cuts and additions and discoveries and feedback and revision and technique that the reader doesn’t see. And when you mentor somebody, you’re there every day in the room with the writer, looking together at the work, and I get to be part of that invisible pile. When I see the piece then come out, I feel I have this insider’s perspective on everything that went into creating the piece as it ultimately is. And to me, that’s as exciting as being a writer of this particular material that you and I traffic in.
Rumpus: “The material we traffic in.” I love that. I want to know if you have a wish for your readers regarding The Memory Sessions. Is there a message in the book you want to leave them?
Smith: One of my motivations for writing the book is to encourage readers to interrogate their own memories and to not be afraid to do that, and to do it in a way that gives themselves permission to be wrong about the memory. I think there is a door that opens in the mind to a whole lot of other discoveries. I think the moment we label our memories as wrong or bad, the door just never opens. It’s shut. I think that by walking through that door, you then find other doors, and then you get exposed to all the other stories out there. What I mean by that is, by spending all of this time interrogating my own memory, I was able to interrogate my sisters’ memories and come to this much more gracious understanding of the things they’re carrying, too.
Rumpus: That was really beautiful. Thank you. I want to give you the opportunity to share anything you feel excited about right now.
Smith: I’m excited that I wrapped up ten events of my fall tour that were just awesome. I really enjoyed designing my own tour stops and have five or six more planned. I was also excited to be the creative nonfiction judge for the Kurt Brown Prizes at AWP. I was so honored that AWP reached out to me and asked me to perform this important role. The Kurt Brown Prizes offer money for writers who want to go to a conference or a workshop or a writers’ colony, or some kind of writing-related event that they may not be able to afford otherwise. It’s another way that AWP enriches a writer’s life. Beyond that, I’m just going back to my great love, which is writing small moments. It’s nice to be back. That’s what keeps me going every day.
Photograph of Suzanne Farrell Smith by Justin Smith.