Tuesday, July 31, 2012

This is a Writing Blog, Isn't It?

At one point, this blog was a place where I wrote about writing. Lately I seem to have been writing mostly about reading. That's not a problem, not for me, but sometimes I still write. Most of the time, in fact.

I have been inspired by my naive misreading of W.G. Sebald's novelish book The Emigrants to start a new writing project, which I assume will be a short-term project because I bought a very small notebook in which to write and when I've come to the end of those 80 small pages, I intend to move on to some other project. The work is my attempt to write down the earliest memories I can come up with, and to write down my thoughts about those memories. I actually have been thinking about childhood memories (in a sort of abstract way) for about two years, since I first got the idea for the planned Antarctica book (wherein one of the characters is trying to remember details from his childhood but can't). The novel I just finished drafting, Go Home, Miss America, has some passages about childhood memory, too. And I have been worrying for about a year now that I can remember almost nothing of my own childhood, and that the memories I have of my young adulthood are both vague and shifting. I could worry about incipient dementia, but the truth is that I've always had a really poor memory and I know that when people ask me about my past, what I report is less the facts than a spontaneous narrative built around how I now feel about what I think happened in my past. So I'm a crappy witness. It takes me three or four attempts to sort out what I actually remember from what I think I remember. Though I can't vouch for the veracity of the final version, either.

What's this got to do with Sebald's book? Not much, as far as I can tell. What's this got to do with the art of memoir? No idea. I don't read memoir. I think this writing I'm doing now might actually be connected with an upcoming project of mine, but I don't like to say how it's connected. We'll just see what we see.

One thing I might mention about The Emigrants is that Mr Sebald was more clever than I am. His book is, apparently, too subtle for me. Most of Nabokov's actual meaning is lost on me, too. I have of course no way of knowing how much I'm missing when I read (or misread) a book. More than I'd like to admit, I'm sure. I'm bright enough to know when something is passing over my head. I don't know how bright that makes me. Not bright enough for some books, though. But I've at least been able to cash in (at least theoretically) on the particular sadness of those who are aware that there is a world of intellectual brilliance that will be forever tantalizingly out of reach, torturing them with their shortfall: the protagonist of my novel The Astrologer is just such a fellow. So what's the line between fiction and memoir again?


  1. Sometimes, a person is better off not remembering the past, particularly his childhood. Not everyone's childhood was a happy one.

  2. I'm not particularly interested in happy memories, just whatever memories I have. I can, maybe, recall a few isolated images from when I was about four years old. There's no emotion at all associated with them. I've also realized that some of my alleged childhood memories are actually just memories of looking at photographs of my childhood, not memories of the event that was photographed. So all of this is interesting. None of this is really an exercise in nostalgia so much as it's an exercise in a greedy writer digging for additional material. Or something like that. I'm not emotionally invested much in my own biography; that's dull stuff. What I hope to explore is the real mechanism of memory: what I actually recall, not what I assume I recall. There appears to be a large gap there.

  3. I found that becoming a father has triggered a flood of childhood memories that I'd forgotten I had. Before my kids were born, I thought I didn't really have any memories from before I was 5. But then seeing my kids do things makes me think of all kinds of similar things that happened to me, that I know happened when I was three or four, etc. Except now I have this weird feeling, like in Back to the Future 2 and some other movies, where you are re-living the past, but from a different perspective. Sort of like when I look at old photos from when I was a child, and try to remember what happened then, and often I can, but of course it's from a different perspective (first person, not third).

    With more passage of time, I find my memories become progressively stranger, just because I'm struck by this strange feeling of it happening to a me that isn't quite the me I am now.

  4. I wouldn't recommend fatherhood as a memory-improvement tool, though. I recall more of my childhood, but less of where I put my keys. That could just be age, though.

  5. I have heard, the more we learn, the more other things like memory get pushed to the back of our brain so we can learn more and that only hypnosis can get the memories out. But that's just what I've heard.

    My earliest memories are from age 5. And they're not really memories, just like bits of a flash of an image. Photographs don't necessarily help either.

    And well, hey you're a writer, you can make stuff up.

  6. I have enjoyed your posts about reading! I just havent commented because I'm freakishly busy, and because I'm not sure what to say besides, "that's cool! I should read the book!"

    I have a terrible memory, as well, and like you, most of what I do remember is really vague and emotionless - and rehearsed, in a way.

  7. Jabez, the "happening to a me that isn't quite the me I am now" is one of the more fascinating things about memory. I have a lot of memories from which I'm so emotionally distanced, they may as well be memories of watching a movie. The fact that you're recalling more of your childhood because you have children around is interesting, too. Maybe you're just thinking more about the experience of childhood? I don't have kids and I don't spend much time around them, so childhood (and, in a lot of ways, children) is a foreign land to me now, a place I once lived but whose language and customs I've mostly forgotten.

    Anne, I don't believe in hypnosis at all. That's another story, though. I've been reading lately about memory, and longitudinal studies of children have shown that little kids' memories of specific events change during the first years of life. So by the time we reach four or five or six, the actual memory we'll carry to our graves (if we remember it that long) is different from that very memory when we first had it. So memory seems to be a mutable thing all through life, and probably is a lot less trustworthy than we think it is. My current theory is that most of what we think we remember from childhood is essentially stuff we made up based on family stories and those isolated flashes of visual imagery. Does something imaginary feel any different from something remembered? I doubt it. Though there's all that lore about how specific smells can trigger vivid memories. I don't know much about that, so I should look into it some.

    Michelle, you're a very busy woman! Which you already know! "Rehearsed" is a good way to put it. It makes me think about how I have some memories that I've referred back to often during my life, almost as if they're habits and not the shadows of real events. A lot of my memories simply feel fake. What's the difference between memory of an actual event in my own life and memory of a story that was read to me when I was little? Is there any difference? I don't think so.

    One thing I'm trying to do (I think, maybe) with my current writing project is to strip away as much of the imagined/applied falsity that I call "memory" and see what I actually possess in the way of real memories. It's harder than it sounds if I'm honest with myself. Hardly anything can be trusted. I know that when I've told stories from my past, I have often (always?) embroidered, elaborated ex tempore, in order to make the telling more interesting for the listener (why tell a boring story?). And because I'm easily bored (especially with my own past), I tend to make up different details each time I tell the story. What's that make me? A liar who can't remember the lies he's told.

  8. Also, all of this stuff about memory might be the start of a new book I didn't know I'd be writing. Which is a nice thing. Though I'm too busy with old books to start a new one right now, darn it. And I have thousands of pages of research to read for the Haydn book. Yesterday I found a copy of the autobiography of Karl von Dittersdorf! That's gold for me, kids. Pure gold. I also have a book of slanderous (and often obscene) French publications printed during the life of Marie Antoinette. Plus a history of the Hapsburgs, biographies of Haydn and Mozart, and I need to have another look at Thayer's Life of Beethoven. And oh, so much more.