This essay originally appeared on Violinist.com
A high school senior was trying out for a competitive acting program. When she finished reciting her monologues the program director smiled at her and said, “Sometimes we want to jump across the table and offer a position on the spot, but we are required to wait.” She took his words as a tacit acceptance and looked forward to her official confirmation.
Come April, she was rejected.
And then there’s the kid who played her flute audition for a irritated-looking panel who barely glanced up from their paperwork and donuts except to cut her off her a few minutes into her concerto. She went home miserable, certain that she had bombed.
She was accepted.
Everybody’s heard these stories, or similar. Everybody knows you can’t glean squat from the reaction (or perceived reaction) of the panel. Yet it’s almost impossible not to rerun the audition in your mind. Was that a facial tic or a twitch of disapproval over my interpretation of the Bach? Was that a sigh of appreciation or disgust? Were they furiously taking notes—or writing out their sandwich choices? Every micro-second, combed-over and analyzed for clues.
But here’s the thing about your memory: it isn’t reliable. What were you doing at 11:17 last Thursday morning? (I thought so; I can’t say, either.) Your memory isn’t a video recording that you can play back at will to analyze for clues. Immediately after we experience an event, that moment evaporates forever. We forget most of what we experience, although, if an event is significant enough, we may recall chronological markers such as the day, or even the exact hour and minute. (Where were you when the Twin Towers fell?)
When my daughter auditioned for the music conservatory she now attends, there was a giant digital clock in the room. She glanced at it on the way in and the way out; this is how she knew for certain that the audition lasted all of seven minutes. She left with an impression that the panel leader (who would later become her teacher) did not remember her from her trial lesson with him a few weeks earlier—because he called her by a different name and then asked for a Bach movement not on her program. She left with an impression that she nailed the Prokofiev, but that the opening of the Bach was out of tune. But the only thing she knew for certain was the length of the audition, which seemed short. Beyond the most rudimentary outline of the experience, her memory of what occurred was but an emotionally charged re-imagining—a creative nonfiction, if you will.
In my college writing class I assign an exercise, borrowed from the great John Gardner, to describe a landscape three times: from the point of view of a bird, a child, and a someone who has just committed a murder. The purpose is to practice controlling the tone of a neutral scene by filtering it through three distinct emotional states. It’s a great technical workout for writers, but here, too, is a life lesson for all of us. Our emotional state, both during an event and during the subsequent remembering, adds color and pulls in subjective detail that may or may not have existed in the actual moment. How did you feel walking out of the audition room? Relieved? Shaken? Elated? Ashamed? These emotions influence the features that come together in your mind to create the “remembered” experience.
Our initial memory of an incident is not identical to the experience itself; it is already one level removed in the direction of fiction; its colors are more saturated. And as we translate the memory into a cohesive narrative, we further embroider this re-imagination of our experience. With each iteration, the varnish on our story hardens. If we go as far as to write the memory down, as I’m doing here, the tale is further enhanced and altered—regardless of the pains we take to be transparent and truthful. This is because, unlike life itself, a written-down story acquires narrative purpose. The story has its own life now, and has now completely replaced the event. It is has become a work of creative nonfiction.
I repeat a story in my own head often enough that I feel as if I were with her in the room, and not stuck out in the waiting room with three dozen other anxious, knitting-and-solitaire-playing parents. In my mind’s eye, I see my youngest daughter walking confidently into her NYU acting audition. Her hair is henna-tinted, freshly cut, and the bangs are pulled back. She’s wearing that eggplant-colored dress she got from ModCloth, her flat black shoes, and the good-luck necklace her acting coach gave her at their last session. The auditor is wearing a black turtleneck and wire-rimmed glasses, and he’s not looking up because he’s struggling with the iPad the admissions committee gave him to record his thoughts. The iPad won’t connect to the building’s WiFi. He can’t log in. She wonders if she is supposed to offer to help, but instead waits politely.
Finally he gives up on the iPad and she performs her monologues for him. He chuckles in the right places in the comic monologue, always a good sign, and then interviews her about her other-than-acting passions. She speaks of her interest in social justice, playwriting, and aerial acrobatics. He seems to relate to what she’s saying; he writes nothing down.
After she leaves the audition we google him. So I now know what he looks like—or, at least, I’ve seen his headshot online. With this added visual information (glasses, turtleneck), the scene blossoms more vivid to me than my memory of many events I actually lived through. Months later, when she receives her acceptance and her strangely inappropriate, in our opinion, studio assignment, I conjure up the scene again and use it to further hone my narrative of what happened. My story now goes like this: unable to make notes on the iPad, he remembered her audition monologues favorably but could not recall the interview well enough to recommend the best studio fit. So he chose at random. If she’d been placed into the studio that she felt would have been appropriate for a trapeze-flying, politically active playwright, my story would have gone a different way. Creative nonfiction.
The conventional advice is, the instant you walk out of that audition, you should put it out of your head. Don’t dwell or second-guess. Go on with your compartmentalized life. Do your calculus homework. Practice those arpeggios. Binge-watch all nine seasons of Scrubs. And whatever you do, don’t think about polar bears. In my daughters’ cases, their teachers held up to them for admiration examples of students who walked out their auditions and never looked back, because nothing more could be done.
Maybe I rationalize my need for looking back because I lack the self-discipline and psychic energy to suppress my imagination. I’m no good at playing whack-a-mole with polar bears. Our lives are little stories, stitched together from bright scraps that we save and augment throughout the years. A memory can be bent towards the comic or tragic, sometimes both, depending on context. If we willfully forget these artifacts of experience, what is left?