Between the press of preparations for the all new Writing for the Health of It class I’m teaching this fall for the Osher Lifelong Learning Institutes at Carnegie Mellon University and the University of Pittsburgh, and family chaos revolving around a relative’s recent cancer diagnosis, I have barely thought of this memoir project for several weeks now.

Yesterday I began mentally picking up pieces and looking for an entry point back into the process. The search was daunting, and easily dropped. Last night I had a dream. I saw a puzzle, with pieces scattered around the table. Each piece held a complete image, and I knew if I arranged them right, they would reveal the Truth of my life in Los Alamos. The box cover had a panorama of Los Alamos, with the mountainsides verdantly green with ponderosa pine and aspen, as in the olden days (and the picture above). But as I looked at each piece, it faded and grayed out. I quickly left the puzzle, thinking If I don’t look, they’ll stay bright!

Then the dream moved to the dining room in our first house on Walnut Street. I found a bowl of soup on the table. The contents were overcooked and mushy. The meat was nothing but gristle, and the broth lacked salt. That soup was utterly tasteless and tepid.

I woke up in a panic with a single thought: “My memories are fading and turning to gray mush!”

Instructions for enhancing digital photos with a program such as Photoshop always include a firm reminder: “Be sure to save a copy of your original photo so you can go back and start over if you get carried away with your enhancements.”

In articles on his work on brain function and language, researcher Matthew Lieberman cautions that labeling emotions, even positive ones, fades them and diminishes their impact. Psychology professor James Pennebaker states that applying language to sensory memories changes those memories.  Neuroscientists tell us that each time we recall a memory, we incorporate the experience of remembering it, along with any reflections or “enhancements” we make. Over time the original memory morphs into something that may bear little resemblance to the actual experience. I wish I knew a way to store originals of my memories!

I derive some hope from the fact that short-term memories are not all transferred to long-term. Perhaps at least some of these modifications will fade if I leave the memories alone for awhile.

My dream seems to be a powerful warning that I am on the verge of burnout, and need to back away from even thinking about those years for a few weeks or months and see if more of the original color comes back. So for now I bid you a fond au revoir, reminding you of the literal meaning, “until the re-viewing,” or “until we see each other again.” I know we will, but I don’t know when.

As I work on my story, it is already becoming crystal clear that I must create scenes with a broad brush. Trying to use specific events, as they happened, as I felt in that moment, can’t possibly convey the sense of things. What I can do is remember something I did, i.e. ride my bike out to the picnic ground, together with my sister. I can take that real memory and embellish it as I wish, with details from two dozen other memories, dialogue, sensory detail, and other related verbal and sensory memories, and jam them all into that single package. Everything is real and true, it just didn’t all happen in conjunction that way. By picking and choosing when and how to say what, and artfully arranging my puzzle pieces, the picture becomes more true, IMO.

It reminds me of the way our minds jump around when we start remembering things. Neurons sizzle and snap with connections going off in dozens of directions. How do we decide which path to be aware of? We may not even be conscious of our choices, but it’s much like the “Oh, that reminds me of the time … ” conversations we all have while reminiscing with friends and family.

As I’ve written, there have been a few times when I’ve continually come up empty after trying all sorts of things to retrieve memories and emotions around some event. I’ve finally stumbled upon a technique that works. I briefly describe the event in a freewriting session (or while journaling) and end the description with the line, “If I were writing about a fictional character in this situation, how would she feel?” As I write my answer, building that fictitious character, my own authentic feelings usually come streaming back. If they aren’t “authentic,” they are real enough to fool me!