“— but there’s one great advantage in it, that one’s memory works both ways.”
— the White Queen, Through the Looking-Glass
I’m a writer of literary nonfiction and my first book is a memoir. Seems likely that memory would be important to my work. It is. But it’s of equal value to writers of all stripes—poets, or those who write short and long fiction and any of the myriad forms non-fiction takes. Memory is one of the most powerful tools any artist or creative person has in her arsenal. As in physics, so in literature: one cannot create something from nothing. Creativity is the combining of bits and pieces of memory in a unique way. The way you’ve made that character walk is because, whether you consciously remember it or not, you once saw somebody or something move that way.
Since writing my memoir, I’ve been asked frequently how I was able to remember in such detail events that took place more than thirty years ago. It’s caused me to investigate the nature of memory: how we retain detail, how we access those details and how we can enhance our ability to remember events sharply and fully.
On one level, there are tricks that help. To retrieve the details of a life in the tropics, I ate Guyanese food, listened to Indonesian angklung music, played the mid-1970s hits of the Mighty Sparrow. My father had shot hundreds of slides and many hours of Super 8 film when we lived overseas. I sat in a dark, hot and muggy room and played those over and over and over again. I found obscure websites where the recorded songs of birds all over the world could be played. I used Google Earth to find the homes I’d lived in and to retrace the path I took from home to school.
But those tricks will only get you so far. They’ll help place you in a context and they will start triggering your memory, but to go further, to make the emotional connection that is needed for the best work, you’ll have to do something that is counterintuitive. You’ll have to forget to remember.
The funny thing is, this forgetting to remember is also what we need to do when we are encountering or experiencing something that we hope to set firmly in our memory bank for future recall.
How do you forget in order to remember? It’s a bit like what a dancer, a painter, a musician must achieve to move from good to great. You have to become so utterly familiar with the steps of the dance, with the details of the memory, that you can move into it without being aware that you are doing so. Forget what you are trying to do. Forget that you are remembering. Mesmerize yourself with the particulars of your memory and then stop paying attention to them. Wander into the blank spaces between, find yourself experiencing rather than consciously remembering events.
That’s all about recall, but a very similar process takes place when we work hard to encode and store memory. It is much the same as what experts tell us to do in order to enhance memory, to keep a memory intact with all its unique and valuable details for future use in that story you’re starting to write: Pay attention. Focus narrowly on the details. Shut off the nitter-natter that is so often going on in all our heads at all times and just listen, smell, see the particulars of what is going on around you. If you can do that—and don’t give up; it’s hard but manageable—you will be staggered by the results.
You’ll also have upped your store of that which makes your writing good: concrete detail.
Shelagh Plunkett won the CBC Literary Prize for creative non-fiction in 2007. Her winning essay grew into a memoir, The Water Here is Never Blue, published by Penguin in 2013 and shortlisted for both the Mavis Gallant Prize for Non-Fiction and the Concordia University First Book Prize. Visit her blog for more.
Photo credits: Niamh Malcolm (headshot); “A picture is worth a thousand words” by HikingArtist (top). Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.