Thursday, August 6, 2015

Memoir Craft: Grappling with Memory in Warm Springs (Part 1)

Susan Richards Shreve is concerned with memory--its accuracy, reliability, power, and how various people can experience the same events and have entirely different memories of those events.

In Warm Springs, her memoir of spending two childhood years at a polio hospital, she is determined to tell the truth. The truth, as the reader discovers during the story, is established by Shreve in part by making transparent her process of grappling with memory.

On three occasions she takes time--within the story itself--to let us into her process. The first is immediate: the word "traces," which is in the subtitle and is the focus of the first brief chapter.

My part in this examination, not the first in my life with polio, is to concentrate with all my might on each muscle, one at a time, in the hope that with my undivided attention, there will be a shiver of response and the doctors will rise up smiling…” (3).

Shreve employs this metaphor of being examined to show that searching for memories requires disciplined concentration, patience, and belief that something real exists to be found. It also subtly acknowledges the violence that is done to memory by time, the way polio wreaks violence on the muscles. “When I think of the word ‘traces’ now,” she continues,  “it is as a footprint or a shadow or a verb, like ‘unearth’ or ‘expose’ or ‘reveal.’”

"Expose" is the key word here for the reader; it is exactly what she is doing for us in terms of her own process. As she writes, she has “turned [her] attention to discovering what remained” (3). She is telling us that the first part of her process is to remember; and to do it purposefully, carefully, and with full concentration. We know, right from the beginning of the story, that she takes memory seriously.


  1. This is very interesting, how to deal with those memories. Especially the ones that refuse to come into focus. That process of demanding they sit still ... that's still new to me. Her ideas seem intriguing, and more, how she apparently makes it 'apparent.'

  2. Memory, its reliability, and how to use it are constant discussions in memoir circles. What I keep coming back to is what I think Caldwell did--be honest and trust yourself. SHe did this and wrote a great book.


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