As far as I can tell, I have a pretty inconsistent memory. It's a bit of a blind spot. I used to say I had a terrible memory and who are you and where's my mommy, but then I would hit that calm after crying and I'd recall that certain moments (my sister and I hiding in the clothing racks at JC Penny while my mom shopped), stories (scrambling up a cliff wall to poop in the brush, offering the alternate view from a Grand Canyon scenic platform) and people (the smell of my Pap Pap, his short sleeve shirts with starched collars, his very Irish sounding voice, the astroturf he used to cover his concrete patio and steps), I remember in vivid detail, while all the same others are foreign to me in such a way I struggle to even feign recognition.
This is however very common and not my fault (so please forgive me). In fact, the real crux of my memory problems stems from other people under representing their own. Eye-witness testimony is widely accepted as unreliable at this point, and that's because memories can be altered by nostalgia, television and by other people. We're totally memory biased. We remember ourselves as better at things than we were, we remember positive experiences over negative ones (I'm on board for that one), we distort our recollections to serve ourselves. We have all been caught telling, or or caught a friend red-handed as they claim an old story for their own, WHEN YOU KNOW FOR DAMN CERTAIN THAT'S YOUR STORY.
There's no real way to win, as it's been shown that simply by accessing a memory you distort it. But the most important thing to takeaway here is, none of it is anyone's fault. The sooner we accept that past facts and figures and the names of actors (which admit it, you struggle with on a little less sleep, there's too many actors!), you quite simply shouldn't claim you are certain how something went down. Memory isn't compartmentalized into stories so much as it is able to recall the unearthly feeling of waking up in a friend's tree house and not understanding where you were in the world, having never seen these elevated sections of trees, so close and only consequently do you remember in your incomprehensible haze, walking right out the door, down ten feet, and somehow--like a cartoon, limbs searching and swinging through the air--didn't manage to break anything but your pride. Your pride for weeks and weeks, but only that. The details we may claim. The story, will always be storytelling. And I for one say, THIS IS A BLESSING.
In this sense, I say to every computer programmer and medical researcher and CPA's stupid serious face as they tell me they wish they were creative like me," we are all creative people!" We are always crafting stories. We are all writers of great skill and incredible resources. That means you, pal! Sign my book, please!
And the people with the best memory in the world to me, are writers. We can argue semantics all day, but I would say, writing, really trying to capture things, is all about memory. Not necessarily the specifics, but the feelings. Those gems of experience that light you up with recognition when you read them. What are they but shared memories? How else could you read "A Thousand Splendid Suns" and feel yes! over and again even though we are not Tajiks?
It is in this spirit I developed one of my longest running habits. One of those that I've spent countless hours on, and that I also can't quite explain. It's a blind compulsion, that came from a natural enough place, but like a hoarder with a couple decades worth of papers, I can't really explain it to much satisfaction, especially my own.
I had decided, thanks to a really kind sub who took over our class when our English teacher left to have a baby, that I was a writer. Or at least, a writerly type (every creative thing we wrote for class, he urged me to send in to be published somewhere. I mean, really urged me!). With this new hat I decided I was wearing (a very tall and distinguished hat) came (I also decided) an oath of loyalty to having read (notice I did not say to reading) EVERYTHING EVER WRITTEN.
But even after deciding to be a white bearded caste with a library for a family, I had to come to terms with the fact that I couldn't even remember to pack a lunch, much less any part of Henry IV Part I. And thus, activating my engineer's brain, I created a SYSTEM. A time-capsule method that would extract every ounce of literatureness from everything I read. It went like this.
I would take a loose leaf, college ruled sheet of paper. I would fold it hamburger, and then hamburger again. Genius right?! A little booklet/bookmark/reading guide. And from 8th grade through college, I read every single book this way. Easily 200 books. With a rectangle of notebook paper that I would pull down the page like a horse pulling a plow, in an attempt to keep from the eyes-scanning-whilste-brain-in-the-clouds style of reading that so often overtook me as I ran, sunglasses on and phone in my pocket out early into the high tide of the history of fiction.
If you opened up my little document, you would see in the tiniest chicken scribble, a list of words, that needed defining and a list of quotes that needed remembering on account of their power, beauty, truth, and because they offered something to the young and hungry soul who didn't know, but wanted, was wanting. I made this sheet because I believe and STILL BELIEVE that writing in the margins of a book is sullying hard-worked writing with half sleeping observation and even marking passages changes the book for whomever happens on it next. It's like talking over a movie, or telling someone which episodes of a good show they should skip.
The hoarders-style finale to this hard worn habit of mine is that, at this very moment, in my room in Brooklyn sits a stack of about 30 books in a pile (two piles, actually, more structurally sound) by my desk. The books, lovely, I have already read, but before they can be placed back on the shelves with their friends (organized alphabetically, like in homeroom). I must sit at the computer and write--now in Evernote, after some sad experiences where notebooks of quotes and definitions and musings on beloved novels past were lost or stolen or brutalized by bodies of water--pages and pages of quotes. Spend hours after finishing a novel, trying to keep hold of its contents.
Originally I patted myself on the back for this system. This was responsible reading! This was me committing myself, chastely to my partner! I happily spent hours every night worshipping at the church of my choosing. Some creative writing professors of old used to encourage students to write, long form, Hemingway's stories, to learn the wording, the pace, the sentence structure. Take on the essence of his writing. I wonder what they would think of my catalogue of quotes that frankly no one wants. Have I learned to Hemingway from typing? I would think the reading has been more important than the quoting, wherein I hear a sort of karaoke, sing song version of prose that read like a spangling stream the first time.
BUT, and here's the point. I don't remember the books I read. As much as I am in love when I'm in the throes of a good book (and I am in this way always in love), 6 months later, without someone to talk about the book with (and it's hard to find someone to read Borges, and Dostoevsky, and Proust with you, and I don't blame them) I am coughing up cobwebs when I should be regurgitating sonnets.
And this scratching on the head, hurts my heart a bit. And so, without subscribing to luminosity, or wasting my time reading a book about remembering books, I fight an uphill battle to keep an encyclopedia of everything that's ever fallen out of my head. So that after a few beers in a bar, if I find someone else who has read Don Delillo's Underworld, (and everyone has read at least one very surprisingly rare or odd or long book in their day, and taken to it!) I can access what I loved about it. Relight the embers of my passion long since cooled. I can relive the memory of reading. The stage where I lose myself and become myself at the same time.
At least that's what I tell myself when I'm not looking at that pile of books, sitting unable to be lent to others, unable to be appreciated on the shelf, in their limbo on the floor.
Do other people have a long standing dedication to something they only half believe in? A collection of dog photos they've cut out of magazines since they were five? A compulsion to hide things in the houses of people they love, so that one day, years later, they will find it and think of you. Perhaps even bring it round and share a nice round of manufactured, but no less real nostalgia? Oh, it's just me? Ok, then.
I'll finish WITH A QUOTE, (because what the hell are we even doing here at the bottom of this interminable blog post) from a masterful book about memory and the unconscious, Mrs. Dalloway, by one of my favorites, Virginia Woolf. In the book the perspective shifts between characters who intermingle through London on a single day, five years from the end of WWI. Though the novel is told in the third person, it is written with each character's thoughts on full display, often obscuring what is said to another character by being caught up in the flowing language of their interior monologues. The protagonist of the title is a woman who finds great excitement in her life but also feels an enormous dread. Here, set off by the chiming of Big Ben, she is taken away on a thought about life being an invention (or creation) of each and everyone. That each individual is the true architect of beauty (Something people cannot do when they are held heavy by depression). Hear hear!
"For having lived in Westminster—how many years now? over twenty,—one feels even in the midst of the traffic, or waking at night, Clarissa was positive, a particular hush, or solemnity; an indescribable pause; a suspense (but that might be her heart, affected, they said, by influenza) before Big Ben strikes. There! Out it boomed. First a warning, musical; then the hour, irrevocable. The leaden circles dissolved in the air. Such fools we are, she thought, crossing Victoria Street. For Heaven only know why one loves it so, how one sees it so, making it up, building it round one, tumbling it, creating it ever moment afresh; but the veriest jumps, the most dejected of miseries, sitting on doorsteps (drink their downfall) do the same; can’t be dealt with, she felt positive, by Acts of Parliament for that very reason: they love life. In people’s eyes, in the swing, tramp, and trudge; in the bellow and the uproar; the carriages, motor cars, omnibuses, vans, sandwich men shuffling and swinging; brass bands; barrel organs; in the triumph and the jingle and the strange high singing of some airplane overhead was what she loved; life; London; this moment of June."
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