A question that pops up in my search stats fairly often is "Does writing really help you remember?" I've even answered the question generally, on my search engine question blog. I think it's clear that, in several respects, the answer is "yes". But today, I've been thinking more specifically about how writing helps memory as a writer.
I've been an avid journaler since the age of 9, which means that much of my life has been documented and remains available for review. That's not really memory, I know, but it has an impact in a way I might never have learned to capitalize on but for a conversation with another writer in a dive bar in Champaign, Illinois back in my early twenties. Over an unbelievably cheap pitcher of beer and quarter fish sandwiches, I mentioned my journals and he told me he was jealous.
I didn't look back at my journals much, and so his meaning wasn't immediately clear to me. When he elaborated, it forever changed my fiction writing. "You know what it was like," he said. "It's right there down on paper. You can look back and think you remember what it was like to be 17, how you felt about something in the moment, but you don't really know. But you...you have it right there...you know what it was like because this is what you put down right then." And just like that, I held in my hands the key to getting inside the head of a young character.
But today, I started thinking about memory and writing in a whole new way. I remembered, today, the first time I met a certain young man. Though it was more than twenty years ago, I remember what he was wearing. I remember my reaction. There are many possible reasons, including randomness of memory or the momentary import of that meeting, but I think that the reason I recall his sweater, the jeans he wore, even where he stood is that I wrote it down. Where I wrote it, what happened to those words, I have no idea. If I ever re-read them, it was many years ago and I have long since forgotten. But I have an image in my mind that I don't believe is the real one. I have an image in my mind that I think arose out of my own words. I have seen it happen with the most insignicant of moments, the turning of my gray moccasin on pale concrete after midnight, things I would never have had cause to recall decades later.
But what does this mean, this memory of the record of a memory? It is not unlike, I think, the way we sometimes believe that we remember long-ago scenes we've seen in photographs. But what is its impact, really, on memory? Does it enhance, or does it alter? And does the ability to see that moment forever as we saw it in the moment somehow eliminate some other memory, the one we would otherwise have seen through the filter of time?