Author Peter Selgin believes we are all inventors. He says memory is fallible and that we invent ourselves intentionally or inadvertently. “We don’t have a faithful grasp of who we are and we base our identities on a blend of memory and mythology. Memories are about as reliable as myths. Like myths, they take on their own truths.” But what does it mean when our memory of someone (a father, a teacher) is different from reality? Selgin’s latest book “The Inventors” is a memoir that examines the lives of two men, his father and his 8th grade teacher, who were influential in his life. Each had a profound effect on his development, and it wasn’t until after their deaths that he discovered the significance of their inventions.
What? and Where?
Selgin began his career as an illustrator for noteworthy publications like The New Yorker and Gourmet magazine. He lived in New York City and spent years drawing caricatures at corporate events. “I sometimes can’t believe I abandoned painting for writing. Writing hurts,” Selgin says of his switch from visual art to storytelling. “Writing is more like hand-to-hand combat, while for me painting is playing with shapes, textures, and colors. With painting I couldn’t get to the heavier thoughts, the deeper emotions that I wanted to access.” A prolific writer, Selgin works across all genres and won the Flannery O’Connor Award for Short Fiction for his collection “Drowning Lessons” in 2007. It was this award that brought him to the south, and in 2009 he moved from New York to Georgia College where he teaches Creative Writing in the MFA program. He tells his graduate students that all writers have one real story living inside of them and that many will tinker with the story for years before getting it right. “There’s something in us. We keep taking stabs at it. I’ve written about my father for years. Maybe this time I’ve got it,” he says of “The Inventors.” Referencing Tennessee Williams and Flannery O’Connor who wrote about the same subject for years, he says that writers want to create one work that will last.
Memoir writing has a different set of challenges, especially when it comes to accuracy, and Selgin says he wasn’t able to write about his father or his teacher until after their deaths. “After my father’s death a woman told me that he was Jewish,” he says. Selgin speculates that his father denied his Jewish background out of a fear of anti-Semitism and a deep love of British culture. His father was a brilliant inventor whose developments include the first machine for changing dollar bills to coins. His teacher’s motivations for reinventing his identity are less clear. Selgin’s research process involved tracking down the teacher’s sole surviving family member, reading old journals and letters, and hiring a genealogist. He did his due diligence, but contemplates the complexity of memory throughout his book. He writes, “What do we remember? What do we know? Are knowledge and memory the same? Just because we remember something, does that mean we know it? Is memory something that we possess, like knowledge, or is it something we do – an act?” Selgin is a twin and invited his brother, who often has vastly different memories of shared experiences, to write the Afterword. In it his brother writes that “The Inventors “is “a book about inventors whose inventions consist of myths they’ve spun about themselves. (…) But it is mostly about a third inventor, Peter himself, and his own creations, whose patent specification you are holding.”
“The Inventors” explores the different theories and psychology of memory, and writes that according to one theory “As soon as we stop remembering, just as the wind stops existing when it stops blowing, our memories cease to exist.” I remember when dementia started to steal my grandmother’s memories and in an attempt to push back against the inevitable, she wrote little notes and put them in an old jewelry box for safekeeping. I remember the fear in her eyes when she showed me her box of notes. Who was she if she couldn’t remember? In “The Inventors,” Selgin reminds readers about the infallibility of memory, and the power of invention.