Sunday, February 22, 2015

Writing Memoirs

By Deborah Wright Yoho

When I was growing up, Walter Cronkite's warm, reassuring voice on his nightly newscast greeted our family every night. He was the Most Trusted Man in America. In retrospect his ironclad credibility seems surprising, because Walter reported relentlessly on the agony of Vietnam, the first war to beam straight into America's living-rooms during a period when the nation's sense-making of warfare was confused and divided.  His broadcasts punctuated our evening meal five days a week, every week from the mid-Sixties to the early Seventies, except in the summer and on weekends, when Roger Mudd substituted so Walter could go sailing.

Cronkite's job as the CBS news anchor required him to announce the evening American death toll in Southeast Asia. “Today’s casualties numbered thirty-two Americans dead, seventy-one wounded and three missing in action," said Walter as we sat over our dinner, only the numbers changing with each broadcast. Of course we believed him.  No one ever questioned the truth of anything Walter Cronkite reported.

I've been thinking about this anew since Brian Williams, the evening anchor at NBC, was recently placed on unpaid leave for six months because he exaggerated about coming under fire when he flew in a Chinook helicopter a number of years ago in Iraq. Inquiring people want to know:  is Brian Williams a liar? News anchors are no longer credible just because they speak to us in our living rooms.

I write what I hope is non-fiction, putting to paper my memories of my own life. A haughty enterprise. Why should anyone believe a word I say? As I work to write an accurate account of events that happened thirty, forty, or fifty years ago, I find my memory is a very fickle tutor. Some recollections, significant and insignificant, come easily to mind, but my brain needs prodding to recall other things. So I pour over photographs, compare my memories to those of others who were there with me, and listen again to the music of the era. Ah, the music! For me, the Sixties and Seventies will always be about the music! Nothing evokes memories like music.

But I still can't be sure if every word reflects exactly what happened, especially the precise sequence of my personal story. Suppose, for an instant, that I possessed an eidetic,  lasting and reliable recall. Would my writing improve?  Become more credible, more interesting, more compelling? I think not.

A writer's offering of a personal account is fascinating to me not because it purports to be true, but because memoirs reveal how people, events, and locations conjoin to influence an individual's perspective on what is worth remembering, worth capturing in written language, worth presenting to the world in a published work. Reading a memoir, and especially writing one, creates opportunities to sift through my life to separate the wheat from the chaff.


1 comment:

WritePersona said...

Debbie, an enjoyable read. Your point is well taken that it's not so much what happens as how it's perceived. And how it's written is just as important. Just because something is true doesn't make it interesting.