Journalist Erika Hayasaki holds workshop and talks memory in her narrative works

By Heather Fabritze
Elm Staff Writer

Co-sponsored by the Sophie Kerr Endowment, the Washington College Department of English hosted the third event in their Living Writers: Journalists series.

Award-nominated LA Times journalist Erika Hayasaki held a virtual workshop at 4:30 p.m. on Tuesday, March 22. Students could register via an email link or attend a watch party in the Hynson Lounge.

Hayasaki, in addition to her position at the LA Times, is an associate professor of literary journalism at the University of California, Irvine, where she was named the humanities team’s honoree for excellence in undergraduate teaching. She is the author of  “The Death Class: A True Story About Life” and is a 2018 Alicia Patterson Fellow in science and environmental reporting.

She often writes about health, science, technology, psychology, and the human condition, and has had multiple essays printed in publications such as Wired, The Atlantic, The Guardian, and Time.

In particular, Hayasaki has been “endlessly fascinated by memory” for most of her career. She explored the concept of false memory through literary pieces about crime reporting and the effects of trauma on witnesses’ memories.

One notable story referenced in the workshop was one where she focused on a woman who witnessed her husband’s murder. She identified the man who killed him in a newspaper a decade later, but authorities were unsure that the memory would be accurate after such a long period of time.

Another story Hayasaki described was one she wrote for Wire about a woman named Susie McKinnon, who could not visually remember scenes from her life.

Hayasaki compared McKinnon’s disorder to a person being unable to picture scenes from their favorite book and only having access to the summary on Wikipedia.

“She couldn’t put herself back into that moment of her life when she got married or she got her first date,” Hayasaki said. “Those memories just did not exist for her. And, of course, the question for me became, well, how does that change your life? Because if you think that these memories shape you. Who are you if you don’t have those particular memories? If you only know the Wikipedia-entry-page version of your life, then how do you exist? How do you understand who you are?”

Hayasaki covers in her story both the effects of this condition on McKinnon’s life and the scientific reasoning behind it — the default mode network in her brain, which is important for cinematic memory and perception, was not working in alignment with the rest of her brain.

Hayasaki continued these ideas by introducing her exercises for the workshop. 

First, participants considered either their first memory or one that was essential to their development. They were given a few minutes to write a first-person perspective from this memory with as much remembered detail as possible.

Students then reflected on this memory and its importance, answering questions such as: “why did you choose it” and “how did it impact you?” They analyzed how their memories could be built into a longer narrative work and who could potentially be interviewed.

Finally, students wrote from a perspective of speculation. They considered how accurate their memory was and shifted their works to match this uncertainty. 

Hayasaki emphasized the importance of questioning one’s memories. Reflection on past beliefs and experiences can lead to realizations that make concrete narratives.

“By tapping into those questions inside of us, that’s how we find these themes that can connect people to stories about other people who are quite different,” Hayasaki said.

The next event in the Living Writers: Journalists series is on April 21 at 5 p.m. with narrative journalist Rachel Kaadzi Ghansah. It will be held virtually. 

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