Memoir and the Dangers of Nostalgia

It’s 1974, and I’m eighteen years old. I drive a slant-six Plymouth Duster, and I wear my hair long and my jeans tight. I hang out at John Piper’s pool hall, where I play the pinball machines. When the weather’s good, I play basketball on the schoolyard. My game has never been better. I’m young and strong and a little cocky. I like to cruise the streets of my small town just to see who I can see and, of course, to let them see me. I have a girlfriend named Cathy, and I have that head-over-heels, pie-in-the-sky, catch-me-I’m-falling-in-love feeling about her. I have no way of knowing that thirty-eight years later I’ll marry her. At the time, I only know the scent of her Straw Hat perfume, a scent she claims now she doesn’t recall ever wearing, but I stand by my memory. I remember that perfume, and how it felt to hold her in my arms, and the sway of her hips, and the way she whistled her “s’s” when she called me, “Sweets.” These are the days of my glorious youth, days that now can seem so distant but at the same time can seem so near.

I’m recalling those days now because I want to say something about what it takes to look clearly at the various versions of ourselves when we write memoir. We have to look beneath the nostalgic recollection of our younger days in order to see the layers of truth that nostalgia tries to hide. We have to see the details that we tried our best to conceal when we were living those  younger days.

The truth is my Plymouth Duster had a 198-cubic-inch, 125-horsepower engine that was built for economy and not speed. It’s true I wore my hair long and my jeans tight, but my hair was often a mess of thick waves that Cathy once tried to tame with a Ronco Trimcomb that my family owned. It was so dull and pulled so badly, I was nearly in tears by the time she was done. The sneakers I wore when I played ball often had holes in the bottoms, and I don’t know why I didn’t buy a new pair. The grain on the ball we used was so slick it was hard to shoot with any accuracy. I wasted so much money in that pool hall because I didn’t want to go home. I needed a place to be. The only thing completely true in the opening paragraph of this post is the way I felt about Cathy—that and the Straw Hat perfume, which I’ll continue to insist is accurate.

I stand by what I felt about Cathy—and continue to feel to this day—but to write truly about that time period, I’d also have to write about how out of place I felt when I first started attending the nearby community college—how I’d often sit in my car when I didn’t have a class, writing poems and feeling insecure. I’d also have to write about what it was like to be the only child of older parents—my mother was sixty-four in 1974, and my father was 61—and the fear I had that they would die while I was still young. My father and I had finally reconciled after a difficult childhood and early teen years, but I carried with me the memory of his belt against my skin and the ugliness of our words. I’d have to write about how desperate I was to find someone who would  treat me with tenderness, and how that fact made me especially susceptible to falling in love.

We can’t romanticize ourselves or our pasts when we write memoir. We have to be honest. We have to come clean. We have to see the truths of our lives that lurked beneath the images we tried to present to the larger world. We have to be willing to put the details on the page that reveal the inner lives we lived. The contrast between the way we’d like to remember our younger selves and the truths we have to confront can make for powerful writing. We can’t let nostalgia seduce us. There’s always something more truthful on the other side of it.


  1. Bob Dzik on January 18, 2021 at 11:09 am

    You and I share a similar past. That could have been me you described in that paragraph, except it would have been 1975. And, I too, didn’t want to go home. The ironic thing is it’s the opposite for me. I remember taped glasses and hand me down clothes, but old photos dispel some of that myth. When my parents divorced we became poor quickly. But the photos proved that I forgot how my father bought me new clothes even though he had left the house. Thanks for another interesting post that will help with my memoir.

    • Lee Martin on January 19, 2021 at 11:24 am

      Isn’t it interesting how old photos can tell stories–sometimes they’re the stories that we tried to hide from the world, and sometimes, as you say, they’re the stories that we forgot or the ones we couldn’t hear at the time.

  2. Kate Cone on January 18, 2021 at 7:07 pm

    Breathless after reading this, Lee. I remember myself as chubby and unattractive, yet those were stories my brothers told and I believed them. And still do over 50 years later. I love the way you paint the picture of yourself back then. And as a writer I like that as a lead in to a memoir. Whew. 38 years.

    • Lee Martin on January 19, 2021 at 11:22 am

      Thanks for that suggestion about the lead in to a memoir! There’s no doubt that our younger selves stay with us always. Sometimes they haunt us. Stay well, my beautiful friend!

  3. Dawn Denham on January 20, 2021 at 8:18 am

    You have no idea how timely this post is for me, Lee. Copying the last Par to tape on my desk. I’m going places so intense—and I’m curious about them, not afraid or distressed—that I had a session with my therapist yesterday about what’s coming up in my writing and what it all means. Your expression here is swift and clean and powerful. Thank you once again, friend.

    • Lee Martin on January 20, 2021 at 1:26 pm

      Always be driven by curiosity, Dawn!

  4. Katie Andraski on January 24, 2021 at 3:22 pm

    Right now I’m having a hard time remembering the good stuff. I’m writing short pieces about what is surfacing about the beginnings of my faith. I am shaping old essays with new…would love to know why you and Kathy didn’t stay together…maybe that’s coming in a book.

    • Lee Martin on January 25, 2021 at 11:41 am

      Hi, Katie. Sometimes the small details can bring up the good stuff. As for why Cathy and I didn’t stay together, we were very young. I was 18 and she was 16. It’s hard to know at that age what you want. Thanks for the comment!

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