American author Ernest Hemingway committed suicide in 1961, not long after being administered electroconvulsive shock therapy at the Mayo Clinic. He is reported to have said, “Well, what is the sense of ruining my head and erasing my memory, which is my capital, and putting me out of business? It was a brilliant cure but we lost the patient.” (Wikipedia).
Despite the notorious unreliability of memory, we are nothing without a sense of our past. As a writer, Hemingway would have travelled through his thoughts and past experiences, relying on what he remembered as a computer relies upon a databank. Of course, what he, or any writer, attempts to achieve is a sense of intrinsic truth, rather than quantifiable variables. The emotional connections we form to the spaces, people, and events around us are significantly important in how—or even if—a retrievable memory is formed.
The significance and meaning of our past experiences are unstable for a significant reason; the flexibility, rather than fixed state of our memory allows us to re-interpret, negotiate understanding, and reuse the data of our memories to aid us in our decision-making for the future.
For many writers and readers, the flexibility of memory can cause anxiety, and worry about ‘the truth’ of story-telling. Memoir writing and autobiography is often held to critical scrutiny in public conversations about the accuracy of the text.
A similar apprehension exists about the truth and accuracy of historically-based works; however, even in the academic tradition history is a varied and complicated set of perspectives subject to fierce debate. Introducing fictional elements within historical truths can create a back-lash of criticism.
The urge to classify written text into genres is probably deeply connected to how we feel about “the truth” in writing. John Mendelsohn, in an essay on the history of memoir in New Yorker in 2010, writes, “the reactions to phony memoirs often tell us more about the tangled issues of veracity, mendacity, history, and politics than the books themselves do” (“But Enough About Me: What does the Popularity of Memoirs Tell us About Ourselves?”). We tend to differentiate between a truthfulness universally experienced and an honesty about individual reality, often demanding stricter standards for truth-telling in “real” stories.
However, culturally and individually, we were never made to be faithful to the past, or whatever truths have been lost to time. In the contemplation of traditions, the very language itself demonstrates this conflicting urge to retain a relationship with the past, but to also be unfaithful to it. From the Latin, traditio, tradition means “a custom, opinion, or belief handed down to posterity… this process of handing down.” Traditio from tradere means “hand on, betray”. The noun, traditor, from tradere refers to “an early Christian who surrendered copies of Scripture or Church property to his or her persecutors to save his or her life.” Thus, the origin of ‘traitor.’ (OED).
Even though we may have lost some our cultural awareness about the duality of meaning of the word tradition, we have a sense of it when we think of how the word has evolved from handing on, or betraying to save one’s self, to handing down to preserve for posterity. Our cultural, collective memories (like our individual ones) are a time machine that not only moves through the past, but also passes through a warp of alternate possibilities, creating emotional and adaptive (often unconscious) deviations from the original.
The simple act of thinking back can create a butterfly effect, and even while the results are sometimes difficult to measure, the effect is always present, always at play. Perhaps Kierkegaard argued it best when he suggested that repetition is more about moving away from origins than it is about remaining at the origin. By simply remembering we dislocate further from the primary incident, eventually moving so far away that the memory of original context becomes lost, changing meaning and relevancy in significant ways.
For a writer, the failure of literal memory is a creative space in which possibilities emerge. After all, if I wrote a story about the significant symbols and metaphors of my life, without showing the reader how to adjust to my world or to learn how to relate, no one would understand my story. We simply would remain too autonomous to communicate, and yet, we are bound to a collective experience of life; language is the medium in which we meet. But before we enter this collective space, we must pass through the gap that effaces, for the moment, our singularity.
In the way that we transform our unique experiences into a communal language, becoming for a moment a creature like Seven of Nine of Star Trek, we also relinquish our memories in the process of expressing them. Mendelsohn writes,
As for Freud’s charge that memoirs are flawed by mendacity, it may be that the culprit here is not really the memoir genre but simply memory itself. … a seemingly inborn desire on the part of Homo sapiens for coherent narratives, for meaning, often warps the way we remember things.
Claudia Hammond argues that the flexibility of memory also enables us to piece together our past into new form so we may imagine our future possibilities. Drawing from studies of memory loss, she argues that people without memories do not have a sense of their future, and are greatly inhibited in making decisions, or even caring about what will happen next.
I would suggest that no great trauma needs to occur for us to lose pieces of memory, that if we don’t cultivate our identity by revisiting the past, we block ourselves from seeing our choices and considering their importance to us. This is to say, if we surrender our own identity-making process by refusing to look back—perhaps by repressing negative experiences or by living nostalgically—we lose our balance with our present reality. We forget how to properly evaluate a situation (for lack of sufficient or reliable data) and we are unable to make decisions about what to do next. We become stuck, afraid to risk moving forward. Living nostalgically, with a staunch belief that nothing bad can happen to us, we too easily ‘go-with-the-flow’ and imitate what others do. Unfortunately, failing to question, or think for ourselves can leave us extremely vulnerable to be taken advantage of by others.
I think Adrienne Rich said this best, “The unconscious wants truth. It ceases to speak to those who want something else more than truth.”
In creative work, like writing, the fastest way to block ourselves is to ignore what Rich calls ‘truth.’ Perhaps ‘truth’ is more accurately described as a way of remembering which is neither nostalgic nor repressive, but balanced and realistic. Creativity-promoters, like Julia Cameron and Robert Olen Butler have made names for themselves by promoting the writer’s deeper relationship with the subconscious self. Cameron has built a franchise on creating, delivering and promoting programs of ‘artistic rediscovery.’ Her program, like Butler’s creative writing class, rely on the exploration of memory to help dislodge blocks and engage the imagination.
It takes effort to cultivate awareness of ourselves, but if you are a writer, you probably already know that the most direct cure for writer’s block is to write. As other writers (like Pat Schneider, Anne Lamont) suggest in their how-to-books, write through pain, and keep on going, don’t stop because you’re likely to get stuck. The gist is, work through memory repression, and don’t get hung up on a utopian idea of what the past was. If the DeLorean from Back to the Future had never built up the speed, it would never have made that jump from the past to the future.
Our time machines can exist in many forms, the memories of others, books, video, and the landscapes in which we live. We take all of this data, and what exists within our own minds, and put these fragments together like a puzzle, negotiating the connections and determining their importance. What results is a narrative we can repeat, a story that is much less about the past than it is about the future.
We are constantly creating and recreating our narratives of identity, cultivating a sense of who we are and where we fit within our cultural contexts. We want to understand ourselves, and perhaps even more so, to be understood by others. I suspect our compulsion to record and save and archive everything arises from this keen desire to narrate our story to others, and find connection. Sometimes, when a dozen parents stand up in the front rows of the audience at the school play, videotaping their kids on stage, I wonder if we take this process too far. How much do we have to do before it becomes over-the-top data collection, which consumes us to the point of eclipsing experience (think of the sight-seers and tourists who spend more time clicking photos than admiring the landmarks). Why do we do it? Are we collecting evidence for some future narrative?
One sub-category of redemption narratives relies upon the mundane, routine process of recording as a means of supplying the truthfulness of other, more extraordinary revelations of the future. A.S. Byatt’s novel Possession is an example of the extremes of minutia, when small nuance and detail are set out like code leading good sleuths to larger discoveries of the self. Other examples of this thematic structure are present in the films Courage Under Fire, and People Like Us. In all three examples, technology of some sort (diary, audio recorder, home movie) plays an important role in the narrative arc of the story.
In real life, the process of data-collecting tends to be a slower collation of information and discovery. Light bulb moments rarely happen in the instant, and if we say they do, it is only because we’ve come to recognize the importance of particular moments only after a bit of time-travelling. The character, Doc in Back to the Future, demonstrates the instability of the ‘eureka moment,’ showing that relevance of our moments is gleaned from the backwards time-travelling process.
Doc recalls the day he invented time travel:
Marty visits Doc the day Doc invents time travel:
From real life, the much-exemplified story of Charles Darwin’s discovery of a theory of evolution was not a ‘eureka moment’ as Darwin himself later described. Rather, the theory of evolution was a process of revelation, one which Darwin’s journal notes had been engaged with for months before he understood the value of what he knew. If anything, this goes to show that memory-revision is deeply connected with the need to tell an engaging story that others can understand and will care about. We skip the boring stuff, and get right down to it.
Perhaps it is a fallacy of the time-travel genre to suggest the journey of time travel itself is instant. Travelling in time may be as lengthy a process as travelling across space. But then, what fun would it be, watching episode after episode of Doctor Who flying through time and space trapped within the Tardis?
Doctor Who (ironic) montage:
Writing a story is an unfolding of connection, one which requires tremendous flexibility of the imagination to create. If we travel back in time clinging to literal memory we tend to remain too rigid to discover the larger truth of the story. Meaningful details must fit together into something larger (like the montage of the video above), and it must hold an emotional truth for us. The presence of emotion in narratives acts like a glue, binding together the pieces into something that feels whole. Emotions can introduce a high level of unreliability to the veracity of memory, and as glue, they force a separation of the fragments which always contain the potential to destabilize the whole, remaining a future locus of rupture.
As we create our stories, the imperfection of memory, emotion, and language commingle, and no matter our intentions, meaning, and even truth, slips from our control. It seems that the price of being a visionary of our own lives requires a degree of falseness about our past, a necessity to which we all are susceptible. The time machine here is our memories, and we are forever travelling backward to change the course of our futures.
Courage Under Fire
People Like Us
Possession (slightly misleading trailer)