Writerland, Chapter 32: You Must Remember This

What made the worst editor I ever worked for the worst editor I ever worked for had nothing to do with anything he said to me, though he said plenty and, well, don’t get me started. No, what made the worst editor I ever worked for so singularly bad was what he said about Mike Royko. Not that he said this to Royko himself because he was in no position to so much as ask Royko for the time, given that this took place in 1979 when Royko reigned as the undisputed king of all Chicago newspaper people, the five-day-a-week Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist for the Sun-Times so revered and popular that people greeted one another with “You read Royko today?”

Royko was a classic — the working-class, tough guy who made the powerful cower. Which is what made one column he wrote that year stand apart. It mentioned no names. It ripped no politician. Instead it told the story of a man who, upon the death of his wife, returned to their vacation house on a lake to close it up. Royko had just lost his wife. He was 47. He did not say he was the man in the story and did not have to. 

He worked quickly, trying not to let himself think that this particular chair had been her favorite chair, that the hammock had been her Christmas gift to him, that the lovely house on the lake had been his gift to her.

He didn't work quickly enough. He was still there at sunset. It was a great burst of orange, the kind of sunset she loved best.

He tried, but he couldn't watch it alone. Not through tears. So he turned his back on it, went inside, drew the draperies, locked the door and drove away without looking back.

I read and was floored. This was an altogether different Royko, restrained and poetic. I said as much to my editor. 

He replied: It couldn’t have been that hard because he didn’t have to do any reporting.

I cannot recall that story without wanting to scream, “Fool!” Didn’t have to do any reporting? Could he not understand what Royko had done with the small heartbreaker of a column? Could he not appreciate how wrenching that must have been? Could he not see that in fact Royko had reported — that in drawing on memories he had gathered what was necessary to tell his story? Of course he couldn’t. And neither, at that moment, could I. 

This happened forty-two years ago and I remember it clearly, at least in parts. At least I think I do. I can recall the exchange so vividly, especially his words. But did I say anything back? I was not a model employee so might well have. I don’t recall. But something about that brief conversation compelled me to remember it, to file it away — just as Rokyo had done with his own memories. But were his memories precise or flawed? Did things happen as he recalled? Or without doing so consciously, did Mike Royko filter those memories, so that only those that he chose to recall propelled his story? 

There is no way of knowing. Mike Rokyo died in 1997 and even if he were still alive, I suspect he would not have been inclined to consider whether his memories were selective or flawed. Not Mike Royko. That was not him. It was, however, William Faulkner who famously wrote, “memory believes before knowing remembers.”

It is classically Faulknerian in that it takes a moment to move past the poetry and sort through the meaning, which in this instance is quite simple: we want to believe what we want to believe. But only with knowledge can we see.

Journalists encounter this with most everyone we talk with. We pose questions intended to make sense of the past. What happened? What happened next? What did you see and hear? How did you feel? Much as we want—and sometimes accept what we are told, we feel compelled to seek confirmation even from the most sympathetic subjects. (Think of accounts by victims of wartime atrocities that are accompanied by the phrase this account is consistent with those told by others). It is not necessarily that we doubt the subject’s version, though sometimes we do; it’s the nature of the business. More often, it’s understanding that memories can be unreliable, that they become clouded and muddied even as they’re clung to as fact.

But what happens when journalists, story tellers, turn inward and begin to ask those same questions of themselves? Drawing on memories is not limited to autobiography or memoir. We draw on what we have seen and heard and if those memories are confirmed in our notes or tapes we are reassured we have it right. But what about those we did not record — events, moments, encounters, conversations that took place before we thought to commit them to a notebook or recorder? What do we do with them?

I know I heard my editor say what he said about Mike Royko’s column. I know it. And I have told you this story convinced that I have it right. But did I? 

I emailed a couple of old colleagues who were in the newsroom that day. I told them what I remembered and asked if they did too.

One wrote, “Can’t say I remember this episode. Sounds like him - but I don’t recall it.”

The other replied, “I don’t recall it at all.”

If you are wondering whether I then tracked that editor down — last I heard he’d gone on to a successful career selling advertising — and asked whether he remembered a conversation from forty-two years ago, I will confess, at the risk of you thinking less of me as a journalist, that I did not. 

I did not want to reconnect with someone with whom I had such a fraught relationship. But there was something more that transcended the facts of that exchange: my need to remember as I did. And therein lay the story. It was less about what he said about that column than my desire to remember how I felt. Why did I choose that memory? Why did it endure?

I’ve been thinking about this a lot recently in the writing I’m doing. My story begins with a memory: I stand at the grave of my best friend. He is buried in a small plot in a corner of the kibbutz he helped found in the desert. It is surrounded by mountains and sand and nothing interrupts the pale brown vista. It is silent. There is a shade from a single tree. He has been dead for thirty-five years and this is the first time I have visited his grave. A day seldom passes when I do not think about him. 

That was two years ago and it is written as I remember it. But the more I wrote, the more I found myself wondering about that moment. I had waited so long to pay that visit, and in the telling, in what I recalled as I began to write, it felt so hurried, so compressed. 

As it happened, I had recorded the visit on my phone. I found the video and discovered that my memory was incomplete. So several thousand words later, I wrote: Only now, as I look again at the video I recorded on my phone that day, do I see there was more. Yes, there was the shade of the single tree over his grave. But there were other trees and shrubs and a wooden bench bleached and worn by the sun. Four stones had been laid neatly alongside the gray stone that bore Jonnie’s name. A low bamboo fence surrounded the cemetery. The silence was not complete; a bird chirped. Why did I not remember that? Perhaps because all I could recall was what I came to see and could not appreciate that there were things I was missing.

Writing is about choices. What we include, what we cut. Who appears in our stories and who does not. But it is also about the why — why we make the decisions we do. Especially when it comes to what we want and need and choose to remember.

Discovering that my memory was flawed, that I had remembered incompletely, was not reason for worry. Quite the opposite. It has forced me to see my story and the journey in finding and telling it in new ways. I am not discouraged that I didn’t have it right. I am excited.