Saturday, October 24, 2009

Writing and Memory

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 have it right 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?


Barb said...

It's so weird because I was JUST thinking about writing and memory. My husband has been in the hospital this week and as I have lived through that with him, I kept being transported back to a time when I visited my father in a medical facility. (Since he was in nursing homes for almost 19 years, I have a lot of memories.) There were things that came rushing back--smells and textures --that I hadn't thought of in a long time. Because I am NOT a journal keeper, I didn't even know I'd forgotten them. But because I am so thoroughly a writer NOW, I could recall them and write about them NOW even though I am experiencing them anew. I'm not sure I'm explaining myself very well--I'm a writer but not one who has had enough caffeine-- but it's almost like getting a second chance to experience something as a kid but with the perspective of an adult.

RockStories said...

That's exactly what I've been thinking about, Barb. I have this memory that I fixed in time, twenty or thirty years ago or whatever it was, and you have this memory today, seen through the filter of adult life, and I have no doubt that they are different. But is it possible to have both? I'm not so sure that it is. I think that the processing in the moment in some strange way changes the character of the memory--I am not at all sure that I can see these moments from the perspective of an adult at all, but think that perhaps they are forever fixed.