Sunday, February 12, 2017

Writing and Memory

A few years ago I began writing a story about a person who could remember everything - every face, every incident. What would that be like, I wondered? To have this constant "chatter" of the past in your head, so that walking through a crowded station you would recall every instant that you'd seen each of those people, what you knew about them, what you'd overheard them say.

I was therefore fascinated to read this article in the Guardian about a rare condition where people can remember everything about their own lives. In these cases, there is usually something going on, an obsessive compulsive disorder; some trigger or trauma; and often a way of remembering that is in itself systematic - such as keeping  a daily diary.

Rembering is what writers do, of course. They observe, they jot down, they remember. The scene that appears many years later, is plucked from a memory, maybe even a mislaid or forgotten one. The written version becomes the definitive one, and in stories its how we tell our memories. In legal disputes it is in "what you remember" that is often being asked of the defendant. The "I couldn't remember" response of powerful people to events that they were present at is no guarantee that they don't. Not remembering is almost as useful an alibi as not knowing - "plausible deniability". When there is a crime - a murder, a hit and run - the police ask for witnesses at the scene to remember what they can "however trivial." Our memories aren't the imprint of facts, but the interpretation. The policeman who draws a gun, remembers the moment that he thought he saw the other person reach for one; the person caught up in a fight tries to recall the moment he could have stepped back and avoided being hit. These things happen in an instant.

Yet writers' memory is more than that. I don't think I know any writers who have that "total recall" of these rare cases in the Guardian article, but I know from my own remembering how much is stored up there. How a single trigger - a smell, a name, a photograph - could perhaps bring back a whole connected set of memories. When writing a novel years ago, I wrote about my nanna's house, and distinctly remembered the green meat safe in the larder. I had not given that house, that room, that detail a moments thought in perhaps twenty years, but one memory led to another, and evoked a picture, in some detail. Yet there are other times when we can't remember. Did we vote Green or Labour in that by-election in the end? Did we go out on that birthday or to that band? Who was there with us? We can't remember. Occasionally a photograph will turn up and will mess up our memory. The three of us who used to hang out together, yet in that photo its a different three, the memory is intact, but the memory isn't shared.

In analysing the patients with perfect recall, of course the only things that the doctors could be sure of were the verifiable details. "On this day....this happened." And yet even that's a strange one. I remember my parents coming into my bedroom one morning before school to tell me John Lennon had died. So that - with the time difference - must have been the day after it had happened, not on the day itself. Lovers make a note of anniversaries...of when they first met, or when they first got together. Yet it is the date or the moment? As a writer I find myself drawn to facts, but confused by them, needing them verified. Wikipedia gives us no excuse not to; but also, in itself needs to be verified. I used to be able to mark the years, the months by what I was doing - by my job, or where I was living, or if none of those, by the new music I was buying. But grow older and the apparatus drifts away. Was it that year or the other one? Working for the same employer and living in the same flat for a decade, where are the fault lines. I make a note on when I wrote this or that poem - but not everything is accurate - and by the time the poem appears, the source is forgotten, we shape our memory patterns.

The novel I'm working on is all about memory - memory is in the title but also in its DNA - and it looks at paralelling private and public memory. How the powers that be have their own reasons to deny memory - to deny truth - to rewrite the past. Even in a city like Manchester, there's been a narrative for twenty years now that "regeneration" came on the back of the I.R.A. bomb, ignoring that had their not been a bomb there was already regeneration - that things would have still happened, just differently. (There was no bomb in Liverpool or Leeds or Newcastle or Birmingham in that period yet their centres have also been remodelled.) As a creative writing graduate of University of Manchester, I'm sure they might welcome any success I eventually have, but though a graduate of the University, I'm not a graduate of their School for New Writing - which followed on from my time. I'd be an awkward success, I imagine, with my tutors long since gone to Bath and Glasgow.

Yet I think in an era of the digital where everything is available - we also see how invisible things can become. The terrabytes of data created everyday are lost or hidden. It is Facebook who decides to push old memories, some welcome, some less so, on our timeline, not ourselves. Surely future literary biographies if such a form still exists will have to rely on digital sources rather than letters. They will exist somewhere surely, but just as surely, they may also be gone, not just lost but invisibly so. The discovery of old Bob Marley "tapes" in a damp basement at least highlights something might be on them - our redundant memory sticks and landfill hard drives don't provide that truth. I suspect the cost of "retrieval" of the past - our current near present - will be hardly worth the effort. The valiant efforts of special collections in libraries and archives still exists as a testament to our belief in preservation, but as we see institutions turned over, and municipal galleries closed or sold off to developers, the sense of where our archived memory might exist is also a problematic one.

As a contemporary writer that's one of the reasons to write about contemporary things. I recently put a few Manchester stories together in a booklet because I realised that they related to a lost version of the city. Mentions of the bomb, the Arndale bus station, the J.W. Lees pub in the Arndale centre, demolished bars in Hulme, as well as the people, events, times and customs (smoking in pubs!) seems long ago now, that there is a definite break with the past with now. Yet our contemporary story - if not published  -becomes a history tale soon enough. Sometimes we need the perspective that allows us to sift different aspects of the past. Our longer lives, our multiple generations (There was recently a family in the news who had six generations alive at one time) shifts our sense of time moving on. My strong memories of my grandparents link me inexorably to the start of the 20th century - through them - and through knowing them, I can imagine a world pre-the First World War even. Hard to believe! Yet at the same time as we have these longstanding memories - and a media age in which we can see the past, I think we risk becoming inured to protecting it. The cataclysms of Brexit and Trump seem on the one hand to be the last hurrahs of the Baby Boomer generation, reaching for the fear button in their dotage, but at the same time part of the irony of both Brexit and Trump's nostalgia for an older simpler world is that they want to dismantle our fragile modernity. Like Wall Street Amish unaware of the future, their view is anti-memory. It relies on us forgetting, on a deliberate, protracted forgetting. Don't ask where Gatsby got his fortune... don't wonder about Bulstrode's past. Writers know this instinctively.

We write to remember, we have to write so as not to forget.

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