Mind the (Memory) Gap

Lilly Dancyger

In our Craft Capsules series, authors reveal the personal and particular ways they approach the art of writing. This is no. 201.

Gaining readers’ trust is an essential part of writing a memoir: If readers are going to be all in on the story you’re telling, they have to believe that you’re being honest and transparent. Acknowledging what you don’t remember can go a long way toward this goal; if you admit uncertainty regarding some events, readers will take you at your word on others. But this move is best used sparingly.

It’s easy to start pointing out every little gap in your recollection of events, hedging every memory with a disclaimer. But too many of these admissions can get distracting and irritating, leading readers to wonder, “Well, what do you remember?” or “If you can’t remember anything, why are you telling this story?”

To avoid overusing the confession of a memory gap, I use a simple litmus test, limiting my acknowledgement of such lapses to instances that meet at least one of two criteria:

1. The gap itself is emotionally or narratively significant. Sometimes the very fact that you don’t remember something is part of the story. For example, trauma can affect memory, and in memoir silences about traumatic experience can speak louder than any attempt to fill them with conjecture or reportage. Defining the shapes of these silences allows you to write into them, which can be very powerful.

2. There are important details lost to the gap, and it would feel evasive not to explain why they aren’t included. This is a less artistic, more logistical reason to state directly that you don’t remember something—but it’s still a good one. This metric can be misleading, though: What counts as an important detail? When is it important to explain that you left out part of the story because you can’t remember it, and when can you just skip over what you don’t remember without drawing attention to it? Do you need to say you don’t know how you got from a party back to your apartment, for instance, or can you just cut from a scene at the party to a scene at your apartment? If you’re not sure whether an omission will trip readers up, a good rule of thumb is to start by just skipping over the missing details, and address them only if multiple early readers ask about it.

If a lost memory does fit one or both categories, being transparent about what you can’t remember buys you a lot of leeway: Once that admission is out of the way, you’re free to speculate or wonder on the page about what might have happened—or to skip over it and keep the story moving without looking evasive.

Sometimes memory gaps can even dictate the shape of the story, or your attempts to fill them through research can be the source of tension that drives the narrative. But even in a story that’s driven by its blank spots, remember not to overdo it by pointing out every inconsequential detail you’re not 100 percent certain of. Part of gaining readers’ trust means trusting them in return to follow you wherever you lead, which means not overexplaining or qualifying every little thing.


Lilly Dancyger is the author of First Love: Essays on Friendship (Dial Press, 2024) and Negative Space (Santa Fe Writers Project, 2021). She lives in New York City, and is a 2023 NYSCA/NYFA Artist Fellow in nonfiction from the New York Foundation for the Arts. Find her on Instagram at @lillydancyger and on Substack at the Word Cave.

Art: Hao Dong

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