Writing from Memory and Imagination

Photo: Jane Risdon

Writing from memory should be easy, you’d think. After all, we all have memories, and putting them down on paper or onto a computer screen should simply be a case of organising one’s thoughts, and getting on with it.

Photo: Jane Risdon

But is it?

Memory is such a strange thing. My memory of a shared event may well be different from your memory of it. Some of us have great recall, almost photographic, whilst others only experience vague memories of incidents. Sometimes a person can miss the big things but have the ability to remember things, especially trivia or seemingly unimportant details whilst others cannot.

Take two witnesses to a crime. Police know that witness accounts of the same event can vary greatly. Sometimes it might be because the witnesses were seeing events from a different angle and distance, and the lighting might’ve been better for one witness, or perhaps one of those observing events only manages to ‘glimpse,’ what has happened, not seeing everything in its entirety.

Image by Maruf Rahman from Pixabay

Asking them what they’ve seen can prove frustrating. At one time witnesses might have initially been interviewed together at the scene, the thinking being that it’s better to get their observations recorded as quickly as possible before they forget, but human nature being what it is, one person might be more dominant than another with their opinions, and their view of events could well colour or influence the other witnesses observations, whose confidence might not be that great, and they may well end up agreeing with their fellow witness, not wanting to ‘rock the boat,’ for whatever reason. This could lead to an eventual miscarriage of justice if not exposed quickly. These days, police interview witnesses individually so that each witness can give an unadulterated statement of what they’d seen or heard without fear of contradiction.

Gordon Johnson Artist Pixabay

After a long period of time memories of an event fade and the longer the time between the event and any evidence, the less reliable any testimony can be. The brain often does something strange during this period – it can fill in the gaps, altering the memory and resulting in the ‘updated,’ memory being adopted by the witness as fact. I’m sure you’ve had an experience of this at some time or other or have heard people’s versions of events differ greatly from their original comments relating to an incidence.

We’ve all attended a family event together. Conversation flows, someone says or does something and everyone witnesses it. Years later the family gets together again and the conversation comes around to the previous gathering. Individuals begin to relate what they saw or heard in the past, and disagreement breaks out. ‘No, that didn’t happen then, it was on another occasion,’ or someone will dispute who said what – you get the picture. Memories alter and become distorted over time; imagination fills in the blanks or creates a more – or less – favourable story. Creating false memories is always a possibility.

You can understand how difficult obtaining real witness observations can be.

Memory or imagination? A false memory perhaps?

Some years ago there was a spate of reported ‘false memories,’ being implanted in the minds of patients by unscrupulous hypnotherapists and psychiatrists. Newspapers were full of them. I always dismissed this as being near impossible. But, having later seen evidence of this in a friend who underwent some form of ‘counselling,’ about a decade ago, I now think it is possible. We and others had experienced the same event simultaneously but following counselling, our friend suddenly began relating completely different experiences, observations, and facts about what we had all shared. No-one else could relate to what he was saying; none of us had experienced anything like what he was telling us had ‘happened.’ Was this a false memory or was his brain filling in the blanks?

Writing memoirs or stories based on real experiences can be very difficult and challenging for the very same reasons. When writing we try to ensure our research is accurate and, if possible, check with others about details. But sometimes, when writing from one’s own personal experiences, perceptions, and memories, we rely on our own perspectives alone – our memories are unique in most circumstances and we may not be able to confirm them elsewhere. This doesn’t mean we don’t invent events to fill in any gaps, not deliberately of course, because time can distort everything.

Public domain

I like to add some real facts into my writing, to enhance a story, and I’m quite often conflicted about a memory I am considering including, especially from a long time ago. I begin to question myself; memory or imagination? In fiction, it doesn’t matter that much, but in non-fiction, it can prove problematic.

Pixabay Image

If you’ve ever wondered why writers often put a disclaimer at the beginning of their books, you can now understand why.

Examples of Disclaimers for Fiction and for a memoir:

This novel’s story and characters are fictitious. Certain long-standing institutions, agencies, and public offices are mentioned, but the characters involved are wholly imaginary.

This work depicts actual events in the life of the author as truthfully as recollection permits. While all persons within are actual individuals, names and identifying characteristics have been changed to respect their privacy

I love writing fiction, and I enjoy using my imagination to draw readers into the fantasy worlds I create, but as I said, I often add some real facts and events and therefore I make sure I cover myself.

I’ve been busy writing about events involving the activities of the British Security Services and the British Intelligence Service, and although my stories are pure fiction, I do include some facts about both services, as well as the National Security Agency, Interpol, and Europol, and so I have undertaken a great deal of research, but because my stories are fiction, I’ve engaged in a great deal of poetic license as well.

Those disclaimers are vital. I don’t want to open myself up to being sued. Litigation is deadly expensive.

Photo Jane Risdon

Whether we write fiction or non-fiction I’m sure you’ve sometimes, like me, drawn upon experiences and possibly even memories, for your writing. We all stretch the truth or invent what could be called ‘lies’ in our writing. We use imagination, and observations, working it all into our stories.

Our readers probably never give what they read another thought. Hopefully, they just enjoy a good read, unaware of the turmoil we as writers endure as we carefully pick our way through memories, trying to disguise fact in fiction, and using our imagination to fill in any gaps.

Happy reading and happy writing.


  1. Excellent information. It is always tricky writing from memory. I just call it creative non-fiction to be safe. A friend just wrote a novella about his family history and at the front of the book, he admits that what he didn’t know he made up. I loved that.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I have one good friend left from junior school days and we have some very different memories- some perhaps one of us away when something happened, but the school holiday we we definitely both there – but she doesn’t recall two dramatic moments that stayed with me!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Now that is interesting. Do you think it was so bad she has blanked it out, or has she a bad memory anyway? If you had to give evidence of it for some reason, you can see how difficult that might prove to be.

      Liked by 1 person

      • No, events were not bad for us, she has a good memory, the only difference, and I have just thought of this, she is one of those people who does not remember in pictures. There is a name for it.

        Liked by 1 person

        • Gosh, yes I know there is a name but I cannot think of it. But I know music is important and can help those with all types of dementia for example. A case of pressing the right connections in the brain. Tragic to be so shut off from the world, x

          Liked by 1 person

  3. I’ve witnessed (oh, haha, “witnessed”) people change their memory over time. “I wish this is what had happened” to “If I recall correctly, this is what happened” to “this is what happened.” Memory is fickle for sure. Interesting post!

    Liked by 1 person

    • I know, I have had some dealings with those whose version is THE version of events. Oh, to have that self-belief. We mortals have to struggle on. Have a great day and thanks so much for being here. x

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Thought-provoking piece, Jane. The examples of dominant personalities influencing others in an investigation were fascinating. I can see that happening, just as I saw it when trying to get to the bottom of some disagreement between children at school.

    We’ve also had different memories of events when reminiscing. It’s interesting why some memories are crystal clear, others are foggy, and a third group has gone missing.

    I think it’s essential to get our facts straight in writing. One of the people reading my WIP pointed out a geography matter with a road that I was unfamiliar with. It was a little-known fact, but the reader noticed it. That’s a place where accuracy should take precedent over imagination.

    Liked by 1 person

    • It is food for thought beacuse as writers we want to be as authrntic as possible. Credibility is damaged if simple facts are missed or plain wrong. I undertook 7 university courses to aid crime writers. Forensic Science, Criminal Justice and basis archaeology, and the Criminal Justice courses were invaluable, especially the areas we covered to do with Witness Investigations and how eye witness accounts varied and could alter over time. We studied miscarriages of Justice and an eye witness testimony can be a factor in conviction. American Criminal Justice was terrifying to study – so many people on death row and serving until death life sentences who were convicted on dodgy eye witness evidence. Yes, accuaracy should reign supreme. I try hard. Good luck with your fact checking. Thanks for your comments, always lovely to hear from you. xx

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Yes, Jane,I know exactly what you mean.I am currently using my blog to tell stories of my early nursing days 50 years ago.Some memories are so clear,others a little dulled. It’s a good thing that we can mix and match fact and fiction. Although, I hasten to add the two tales told thus far are pure fact.

    Liked by 1 person

    • It really is important to get facts right, but we write fiction, and we can mix it up somewhat. We need to take care when we mention real events, people and places or those who are disguised but not well enough! Good luck with both your tales. Thanks for commenting, always lovely to see you here. xx


  6. REally interesting – thank you – My usband made the comment recently that in my books he can see most of our lives. I did point out that as far as I remember I never killed anyone!!

    Liked by 1 person

Please leave a reply and comment - your input is really appreciated. Thanks, Jane

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