I want to share a tiny piece of my memoir, The Autobiography of a Sea Creature, with you and the photos from which the memory was drawn. The excerpt is taken from chapter one in which I narrate the story of my surgery for pyloric stenosis and some memories of my early relationship with sea creatures. After reading the excerpt and comparing it with the photos, you’ll see just how much of memoir, though often unintentionally, is fiction:
A milestone photo was taken of Dad and me when I made it to one year old—a close-up photo of our faces, his close to mine. He is a beaming full moon. Scrubbed and clean, he glows happily, his eyes smiling. I am happy, too, smiling what my mother calls a classic “buttermilk smile,” no teeth but lips unturned. In front of us is a huge sheet cake and a mushroom candle at the center with a white shaft and a red cap with white polka dots. We celebrated. I had made it out of the danger zone.
For one thing, I am not smiling at all, am I? My father is. Plus, I merged the two photos in my mind because as you can see, there is no cake in the first photo. Weird and surprising. In a way, it makes the memoir seem kind of fake or in writerly terms, the narrator seems unreliable. I suppose I am in some ways, but I like to think I’m reliable when it counts–with regard to feelings and sensations. I try to include accurate details, but perhaps what is most memorable is how I felt.
A paraphrase of Maya Angelou’s wisdom encapsulates my philosophy about memoir: You may not remember what someone said or what someone did, but you will remember how he or she made you feel.