AMC just announced that The Night of the Gun, the memoir of late New York Times writer David Carr, will become a TV mini-series starring Bob Odenkirk. It’s about damn time.
Carr was one of his generation’s best journalists and a personal inspiration to me and countless others. The Night of the Gun was perhaps the best thing he wrote. Like its author, the book is somehow poignant, crass, vulnerable, and funny at the same time.
Fans of Breaking Bad‘s morally complicated characters and brilliant writing will surely get their next fix from the television adaptation of the memoir, which follows Carr as he tries to piece together fuzzy events from his years as a crack addict. But all of us—especially writers—can learn an important lesson from his story.
In the beginning of the book, Carr visits an old friend from his drug days to discuss one of the worst days of Carr’s life. Did his friend remember the night that Carr was so coked out that the friend had to pull a gun on him?
“I never owned a gun,” his friend says. “I think you might have had it.”
Psychology research from University of Illinois found that two-thirds of people believe that their memories record events precisely like video cameras, and half think that memories cannot be altered. The researchers concluded that “people tend to place greater faith in the accuracy, completeness, and vividness of their memories than they probably should.”
Part of this is survival. Since we have to live with ourselves, we remember things and process the world around us in ways that help us do that. So this means we often remember things incorrectly.
“Our memories aren’t perfect,” Northwestern University neuroscientist Joel Voss told NPR. “They’re not like tape recorders. Memory is not intended to allow you to remember what you did last week, or remember your childhood. The point is to help you make good choices right now.”
Studies also show that we’ll update old memories with present context. Your mother probably looks more like she does today in that memory of your 10th birthday than she actually did at the time.
We’ll even change our memories if our social groups remember things differently than us.
A 2011 study in the journal Science observed how our brains function this way. Scientists had subjects watch a video of people being arrested, then tested their memories of the video a few days later. After a few more days, they brought the respondents back, asked them to take a new test about the details, and followed the reactions on brain scanner.
During the second test, the researchers showed the subjects answers allegedly from other people who had watched the video. These answers were actually false. When given this false information, 70 percent of people changed their answers to conform to the group.
Days later, the researchers brought everyone back in again and told them that the answers from the other people were actually randomly generated by a computer and that they needed to take the test again. More than 40 percent of the people stuck with the wrong answer, which implies that they had actually overwritten their memories with the false ones.
Carr realized when he talked to his friend about that night with the gun that his own memories were unreliable. Part of it was the drugs. But part of it was human nature. We can’t trust our memories.
Throughout his book, Carr is surprised by the discrepancies between his own memories and the court records, arrest records, documents, and recollections of others from his past. By tackling his own story as a reporter instead of as a nostalgic bystander, he wrote perhaps the most accurate memoir of all time.
For nonfiction writers, this approach is an essential lesson. We need to verify facts before we barf them onto the internet. We can’t trust a mental transcript of what we did or what people said, which is why smartphone cameras and audio recorders should be our best friends. And we can’t trust other people’s memories either. We need to independently verify statements, triangulating the truth through primary sources when possible, and multiple witnesses when not.
“Man is bound to lie to himself,” Carr writes, quoting Dostoyevsky in the first chapter of The Night of the Gun. Over two years, Carr filled a hard drive with 19.3 gigabytes of history he had lied about to himself. “The data accumulated and began to tell a story I thought I knew, but didn’t.”
Because of his relentless pursuit of the real facts, Carr’s book became a massive bestseller, and we’ll soon get to see the man immortalized onscreen. His self-investigation confirmed the cliché that truth is indeed stranger than fiction. Truth often leads to a better story. Regardless, it’s the story. And that’s what matters.