Post is delivered erratically in the village, and two issues of the London Review of Books land in my letter box on the same day. I read one of them, and am struck by a sentence in an article by the excellent Jenny Diski, one of a series she has been commissioned to write following her diagnosis of terminal cancer (last year she was given possibly three years to live). The article – like much of her recent work – concerns her relationship with Doris Lessing, who ‘took her in’ as a troubled teenager, after ‘abandoning’ two of her own children in Rhodesia, as it was then known. The article begins with a troublesome quotation from Lessing, which is, in fact, the ‘Author’s Note’ to her book The Sweetest Dream:
“I am not writing volume three of my autobiography because of possible hurt to vulnerable people. Which does not mean I have novelised autobiography. There are no parallels here to actual people, except for one, a very minor character.”
In her essay, Diski explores and questions this (disingenuous) disclaimer, and edges towards a revelation of who the ‘very minor character’ might be.
‘What is she telling us about?’ asks Diski: ‘Sex, politics, her version of some truth that has been confabulated?’
And there it is. That word. Confabulate has a peculiar history. It comes from the Late Latin, confabulationem – “talking together”, con = with/together; fabula = fable, tale. The making of fables. And yes, you can do it in a group, with other people, or you can do it on your own, in your head. Making shit up, which is what writers do, a lot.
In recent years, ‘confabulate’ has taken on a specific medical meaning. I was very interested to learn that the clinical term for Alzheimer’s patients making shit up is ‘confabulation’. Wikipedia even has this: “Confabulation is a memory disturbance, defined as the production of fabricated, distorted or misinterpreted memories about oneself or the world, without the conscious intention to deceive” – which is kind of interesting, considering what it is that writers do. Now, if you look in any dictionary, you will find the word has become medicalised, thereby adapting its meaning to a specific clinical usage, while its original meaning has taken a back seat.
Recent neurological research (see, for example Daniel L. Schacter’s Memory Distortion) has provided overwhelming evidence to suggest that memories are constructed from an uneven mix of ‘fact’ and ‘fiction’. Something similar is true for perception: our perceptions are constructions that supplement data processed by the brain with other data that the brain supplies to fill in the blanks.
So, when Alzheimer’s patients ‘confabulate’, in other words ‘make shit up’, I cannot help but question what it is that writers do: the difference being, I guess, that with Alzheimer’s patients confabulation is involuntary, and with us it is (usually) intentional.