When Memories Are True Even When They’re Not

The Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Elizabeth Strout discusses Louise Glück’s poem “Nostos” and the powerful way literature can harbor recollection.

By Heart is a series in which authors share and discuss their all-time favorite passages in literature. See entries from Colum McCann, George Saunders, Emma Donoghue, Michael Chabon, and more.

Doug McLean

In My Name Is Lucy Barton, the bestselling novel Elizabeth Strout published last year, the ailing narrator recalls her childhood with the help of her mother’s stories. Now, in a new book, Anything Is Possible, Strout takes us back to Lucy’s hometown—and we start to learn there’s more to the story. Not that Lucy was necessarily being coy about her traumatic upbringing, which seems to have been worse than she presented. It seems, instead, that some details are too painful for her to access consciously. In one scene in the new book, as her siblings begin discussing a sequence of particularly disturbing family memories, Lucy nearly has a nervous breakdown.

This blurry boundary between memory and the past is one of Strout’s main subjects as a writer, and was the topic of our conversation for this series. With help from a Louise Glück poem, we discussed the way memory works in fiction and how Strout balances objective, factual history with her characters’ more subjective—and sometimes more revealing—recollections. Strout also shared insight into her process, explaining the astonishing way that her own long-gone memories float to the surface as she writes. That experience should be the goal of literature, too, she suggests: to help readers unbury their own submerged feelings.

Anything Is Possible, a novel in stories, contains a metafictional twist: Lucy’s novel, My Name Is Lucy Barton has just been published, to the delight and dismay of residents in Amgash, Illinois. As the locals struggle to reconcile the famous writer from New York with the unwashed, waifish little girl they once knew, Lucy’s book seems to dredge up difficult memories for them, too: a fire, a mother’s affair, the Vietnam war, violence done with a pair of seamstress’s scissors. The title doesn’t only refer to the capacity these characters have for redemption, though some manage to find it against all odds. It’s a reminder that even the defining events of our lives are up for debate, that the stories we tell to make sense of things may turn out not to be quite true.

Elizabeth Strout is the author of six books of fiction, including Olive Kitteridge, which won a Pulitzer Prize in 2009, and which was adapted into an Emmy-winning HBO miniseries starring Frances McDormand. She spoke to me by phone.

Elizabeth Strout: I can’t remember when I first read “Nostos,” Louise Glück’s great poem about memory. I cut it out and stuck it in a little scrapbook of poems that I keep, but I don’t know exactly when. I just remember loving it, and how the last line hit me like a blast.

The title is a Greek word for “homecoming,” and can refer to a superhero type who returns from far away at sea. Which is interesting, because this poem is about trying to return to childhood. We get these wonderful, specific details, apparently the speaker’s memory of things she saw as a child: an apple tree that once stood in a yard, now gone, the smell of cut grass. These layers of detail make you feel fully placed inside the poem. Then, there’s this quiet but unbelievably grand statement just sitting there waiting for you at the end:

We look at the world once in childhood. The rest is memory.

This line blows me away, because it seems to me to be so true. When I’ve used this line in speeches around the country, there’s always an audible noise that comes from the audience—as though the people are struck by the truth of the idea, though it had not occurred to them before.

We tend to think of childhood as the realm of memory. It’s an era we recall, whether accurately or not. But this line flips that idea on its head. Here, Glück seems to be saying that childhood is the only constant, immutable thing, while everything that comes after that—“the rest,” she says, our whole adult life—occurs in the shifty arena of memory. Our whole present tense takes place in the shadows of the original, pure impressions of childhood. We may think we’re growing, getting older, but we’re just trying to get back to the reference point.

I think the edges of our experience are taken off as we get older because the language we use in civilized society is so false. Take advertisements, for example. People are always watching ads on TV, or on their computer screens—they’re everywhere. And in the ads, we see women smiling as they mop the floor. They finally have men in the ads, now, too—they’re smiling as they clean the kitchen. We have a couple walking their dog, holding hands and smiling, smiling, smiling.

We’re bombarded with images like these all the time. And if our lives don’t look like those lives, we start to feel isolated, even if we’re not aware of it. Unconsciously, those narratives make it harder to be honest with ourselves about the true state of our lives. As we grow and become adults, maneuvering our way through the world, we learn not to speak truthfully about who we are and how we feel.

Literature should be the antithesis to that. It should sharpen our perceptions, not dull them. It should remind people of emotions they’ve had, but have pushed away. My job as a fiction writer is to get the reader to embrace the feelings like the ones they experienced as a child, and have long forgotten—back when our perceptions were still pure, when we were not yet corrupted by false language. Unlike the world where everyone’s smiling happily as they walk the dog, literature reminds us that certain intense feelings are okay: They’re still there, even if they’re muted, and they’re normal. When we let ourselves experience them, we feel much more connected to the world.

As a writer, my interest is in memories and where they come from. Obviously, our memories are not reliable—and yet they still tend to tell us something emotionally true, even when they’re not real.

My Name Is Lucy Barton is a book that’s filled with memory. It’s a first-person narration, and Lucy’s recollections play a huge part in the book. I wanted to make her as reliable a narrator as possible, which is why she’s always qualifying her memories, as in: I think that’s what my mother said, though I’m not sure. I’ve heard people say this makes her an unreliable narrator. No. She’s an honest narrator. She’s being upfront about the slipperiness of memory—the fact that all of us, sometimes, cannot be quite sure how things happened.

Characters who are less reliable tend to speak about their pasts straightforwardly, recounting events as if they occurred definitely. You can see that on the first page of Anything Is Possible:

Tommy still sometimes woke with fear he had felt the night his dairy farm burned to the ground. The house had burned to the ground as well; the wind had sent sparks onto the house, which was not far from the barns. It had been his fault—he always thought it was his fault—because he had not checked that night on the milking machines to make sure they had been turned off properly, and this is where the fire started.

It’s a straightforward memory, in a way: a man’s house and barn burned to the ground. But that little hiccup, “he always thought it was his fault,” tells us there is more to the story, that Tommy is a perpetual self-blamer who may not in fact deserve credit for what happened. In this way, memory can be more revealing than what actually did happen. We’re all sitting on top of a slippery mess of memories, and no matter how true they are, they’re real in the sense that there’s some reason that they’re there. More than anything, maybe, they tell us about who we are.

We all watch people telling narratives about their own lives. Sometimes, we can see cracks in explanations and rationalizations—well, you think, that’s not the story I would write for you. The tricky thing about writing fictional characters is choosing which story to privilege: the objective truth of what happened, or the emotional truth of a character’s memory. I don’t think it’s the job of literature to go blasting through the narratives people have made up about themselves, to relentlessly drive home how subjective we are. Still, fiction can help people have a greater appreciation for how big and complicated experience is. I just want to have respect for the enormous amount of mess that everyone is living with and living through. That would be my goal, I think.

The writing process has a way of bringing back my own buried memories to the surface, and it’s astonishing what comes back to me. Amy and Isabelle, my very first book years ago, had a girl who’s abducted by somebody in town. It was based on the fact that, when I was growing up in New Hampshire and Maine, a local girl seemed to disappear every year. I used one real-life disappearance as a reference point, and wrote a character who went missing in gold-colored knee socks. Years later, my parents were researching what had happened to her, and it turned out that she had been wearing gold-colored knee socks when she disappeared. I must have known that, somehow, and forgotten. I just couldn’t believe my memory would do that, 25 years later. That’s an extreme example, but very specific and strong memories from my youth show up all the time as I’m working.

A bad day for me is when I write badly. It happens not infrequently, but I’ve never—knock on wood—actually had writer’s block. I’ve always able to write; my form of writer’s block is just to write very poorly, which I think is better than not getting any words down at all. It used to be enormously frustrating for me when I knew I was writing badly. It still upsets me now, but I have enough perspective to know that I can go back and fix it later. I’ll make it better, that’s all.

It’s like any other job: When you have a bad day at work, it just stinks. I’ve had periods in my life where I’m not writing well, and it makes me feel like a terrible person. I would drive myself crazy: Why can’t I do it? Why? But I’ve learned to just calm down and keep at it. That’s all it is, really: a matter of sticking with it. It’s actually a good thing to have bad sentences, because then I can look at them and figure out why they’re bad. And I can throw them away, which always gives me a sense of accomplishment. I really enjoy throwing things away, and if I didn’t write badly I would have nothing to toss.

My favorite time to work is first thing in the morning. There’s a quietness then. The longer we spend in the real world during the day, the further away that imaginary world becomes. For me, the imaginary world is more accessible when I can get to it without having had too many interactions. In the afternoon, it’s harder because you’ve been living in the real world longer.

I try and write first thing in the morning, all the way until lunch. I’ll put lunchtime off as long as I can—maybe to 1:30 or 2:00 p.m., until I start to pass out from hunger. There’s something about having lunch—even if it’s just a simple lunch, which it always is—that breaks up the pattern for me. I’ve just learned that it does, so I’ll put it off as long as I can.

For me, writing fiction has always had to do with my interest in people. I just find people endlessly interesting, and I’ve never found anything else as interesting in my whole life. And so I just keep writing. Sometimes I wonder why, when so many people are running hedge funds and doing other things. Maybe it goes back to this idea: We see the world once, in childhood. I think there’s always some kind of wound, early on, that makes a person decide to be an artist. It doesn’t have to be something big and dramatic, necessarily. But there’s a differentness, somehow, something that goes way back. Or maybe we’re born with a different nature, and receive the wounds. Either way, writing is a way to get back to that place.

Maybe, writers aren’t all that different, really. There’s a truthfulness in fiction, even if it isn’t true—just the way that memories hover around a kind of truthfulness, even if they didn’t happen quite that way. Our stories stand in the forefront of the shadows.