Writing, Time Machines, and Memory

71 thoughts on “Writing, Time Machines, and Memory”

  1. This is very interesting, and touches on a lot of topics that are very close to home for me. Have you ever read Frank Kermode’s Sense of an Ending? — He talks a lot about the influence of the temporal on the narrative. Although his larger points are a little different than what you are speaking about here, I think you would find some worth in his writing.

    The role of ‘time machines’ as you have put it is something that I have thought and written about extensively, although in different terms. We look at the past nostalgically because it is clean. The memories, accurate or distorted (and they are always distorted in my opinion) take on a narrative structure. Because they now appear to have a narrative structure, they are loaded, like all narratives, with significance that is not actually inherent in the event. The present is a muddied mess –our beginnings are obscure, our endings are unknowable. When we look back we see cause-and-effect; beginning, middle, and end –we are lending ourselves to a delusion of temporal harmony that doesn’t really exist. Fiction, and all writing arguably, is the crafting of this harmony. If anything, “Truth” is buried deeper, but significance –a very real, functional significance –is brought up front and center.

    This is a big topic. I hope I have not only rambled incoherently. I have many thoughts. Apologies for not taking the time to convey them more briefly! This was a great post, and I am looking forward to more from you.

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    1. I noticed you have some very interesting posts, which I’m looking forward to reading. I love your comment. It gives me much to consider.

      The “time machine” here was inspired by an impromptu inter-blog challenge arising from the question of how the topic could apply in various fields/professions. This was where the challenge arose, with this post http://elkement.wordpress.com/2013/04/20/on-time-travelling-rigorous-categorization-of-science-fiction-movies/, and was brought up and responded to in the comments section. Another blogger also posted, http://theunemployedphilosophersblog.wordpress.com/2013/04/26/a-quickie-argument-against-determinism/ .

      Thank you for suggesting Kermode’s text. I had been very curious about Northrop Frye’s discussion of the apocalyptic, and when I looked up Kermode on Amazon I’m reminded that he’s been recommended to me before. I think I’ll need to follow through on this now.

      As for my ideas on nostalgia, I’m currently experiencing an upheaval in my prior thinking. My thoughts on memory have changed slightly from what they once were. I am very intrigued with the concept of a sanitized past, but am also aware of how cleansing can come at great cost to self and others. Perhaps I’ll gain better insight by considering the difference of ‘significance’ and ‘truth.’

      I’ve been working on a novel that really grew out of ideas of memory and identity formation. I’ve sensed that there was something very workable in Donna Haraway’s “Cyborg Manifesto.” Now that I’m moving into the third draft of the book, I’ve been revisiting this. Linda Hutcheon’s essay “Irony, Nostalgia, and the Postmodern” has become interesting to me in this context, as both essays intersect in their rejection of a uniform self existing in a utopian past.

      I had chosen your cyborg posts to read next, and now I’m really looking forward to them. Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

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      1. I am so glad you are interested in my posts! They are, admittedly, hit or miss. I am first and foremost an aspiring novelist, writing in the genre of literary fiction. I started blogging as a way to practice writing and (hopefully) to gain a little readership. I choose topics I am interested in, but not necessarily an expert!

        Thank you for bringing up Frye. I have not revisited his thoughts since university, and I am eager to now. I am also going to make a point to read Lunda Hutcheon’s essay. I have been thinking so much about these topics lately. I think they hold a pretty important space in my fiction, and dissecting them like this will make –I hope –for a novel with greater depth.

        Thanks for following along on Chasing Wild Geese! I will look forward to more discussions!

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        1. My writing is literary fiction as well. Blogging, for me, began with a need to move past the discomfort of being public/published, and to practice writing. I also am aware of the pressure to “have a social media presence,” but I wanted to cultivate this on my own terms, and rather than build a following, I’ve been finding conversations. The discussions have contributed enormously to my writing, and have kept my on-line experiences very positive.

          I haven’t encountered many people who know Frye, and fewer yet who were interested in his work. :)

          I have been reading on your blog, and will return there soon. Perhaps Elke (a.k.a. the Subversive Elkement) will induct you into her “cult of spam poets” and we’ll soon be reading your work, too.

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        2. I also started to break down the public/private barrier. My experience with discussions on my own and other people’s blogs has contributed a huge amount to the ideas that go into the novel I am working on. I am always very glad to find other bloggers like yourself. I think that it is these interchanges that make the blogosphere what it is!

          Frye and I were rather close for a while! Especially around senior thesis time.

          I just checked out some of her spam poems and search term poems. I had never heard of that before! They are great. I might try my hand at it!

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    2. Johannes, I agree to this “We look at the past nostalgically because it is clean.”
      I liked your comment and I am following your interesting blog now – thanks again Michelle for pointing me to it!
      I am a physicist and engineer, but I am enjoying my weird creative endeavors in the blogosphere (spam poems, search term poems…) more than I had expected. ‘Story telling’ has become a buzz word in the corporate world, too, and I was skeptical. Finally I do appreciate the power of the narrative over facts and figures. Which makes it harder actually for me now to write something very fact-y such as a technical report.
      This was very random, too ;-)

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      1. It makes for a hard truth, though! The past is only clean because of our mind’s natural inclination to narrativize. It is clean, yes, but constructed almost entirely.

        I have been hearing more and more about spam and search term poems. I don’t really know what they are, but I am going to visit your page and find out!

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  2. Very nicely done indeed. I have been thinking recently (as have many, for a very long time) about the physical nature of our thoughts (let alone memory … a related topic for another day). When one ponders, considers, thinks, or contemplates … I wonder about the physical reconstruction of the brain which results, for a reconstruction it must be. Wouldn’t it be instructive to be able to quantify the difference between my brain as it was before I read your post and after I read it? Certainly there is something different about the before and after because the latter has more information than the former. Some say data are stored as newly constructed neural connections – OK, neural connections are electrical, and transient. So, I think what the experts are telling me is that new electrical connections are made between and among adjacent neurons and once the connections are made they can be made again (kind of like immediate conditioning perhaps). So, new connections ar registers which may be reaccessed at some future time. OK – but how do I retrieve any particular appropriate register rather some other? It’s all so confusing … but awesome. Questions such as these make the life of a materialist a challenge. D

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    1. I laughed very loudly with your last sentence, “Questions such as these make the life of a materialist a challenge.” I wonder, how many neural connections does it take to buy a pair of shoes?

      What I’m beginning to question right now is how data I absorb from a source can remain as “the work of X” for a time, and I can neatly keep X, Y, and Z’s ideas separated and properly credited. However, once I relax that memory of where the information came from, it all starts to merge into one big, interesting tangle of ideas. My university training tells me to keep the ideas separated so I can properly attribute them, but the writer in me wants to see what will happen when I mix it all together. I wonder if there is a difference in the physical nature of different types of thinking?

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    1. Yes, it makes the concept of intellectual property tricky. ;) I’ve discovered that being without these types of ‘ideas-based’ conversations for many years now, returning to them can be a lot of work, simply trying tracking down who wrote what or sourcing my influences. I forget the subtle differences of one scholar’s work from the next… and then, there’s always the concern that I might have thrown something ‘original’ into the mix, and have done some damage with misinformation. :)

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  3. I have once read that, when we remember the past, our brain actually re-constructs it. Even if we try to focus on facts in a neutral way, our memories are much more our own creations than recordings than we think.
    In these investigations (I don’t remember ;-) the link any more) it was proved that we insist on remembering something as A while it was in fact B. So our time machines do not only take us back to the past, but to an alternative past universe.

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    1. Assuming the research sources that I hyperlinked have valid findings, then “truth” is a concept or theory we have yet to prove “true,” in a sense. Literal memory, remembering what exactly happened as a video would record information, is something we humans can’t have. Being locked into an accurate memory would cost us our hopefulness for the future and the ability to find creative solutions in the present.

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    1. I think so, too. I like the distinction you make between fact and truth. It’s a little bit like the difference between the details and the larger picture… facts can be the details that lead toward (or away from?) a larger truth?

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  4. Niiiice!! I talk about the glorious power of the mind in my “Sacred” series. In the older post on Solitary Confinement, I reflect on our inherent social character (referring back to your post) and what can happen when that’s take from us. You might chk out the new series on the impact of technology on learning also.

    To make sure you don’t end up on a diff blog of mine, which has happened to people,
    aholisticjourney.wordpress.com Diana

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    1. Your blog looks interesting, and I look forward to reading more of your thoughts on the efficiency of technology. My youngest daughter loved the Little House series, which has sparked a huge curiosity in her about life as a settler. We had a little farm for a while, so looking after animals and weeding a big garden didn’t seem very strange to her. I think the experience was very positive for our children, and I’m very curious to read more.

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  5. It’s funny, I was thinking about this very subject the other day. Does it matter if something really happened, or happened like that, if it reveals truth? Every writer should understand that fiction and non-fiction are only separated so we know where to find them in bookstores, and because of a human need to label and then weigh the merits of each label in a constant, but silent, battle about which is superior.

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    1. I really liked Mendelsohn’s article in the New Yorker (link in the post) for how he probes at this tension in memoir and autobiography. Sometimes I think we should label all writing fiction, almost as a means to end the categories. But then, that age-old statement, “truth is stranger than fiction” reminds me that some real-life stories would never make plausible fiction, never make it into those bookstores, and would never be shared.

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  6. Reblogged this on LETHATECHNIQUE and commented:
    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.

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    1. Thanks. The videos were fun to add; I feel like I undermined my entire university education by failing to locate, source and properly document written text instead. :)

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  7. This is fascinating. Early Church history and Dr. Who in one breath! I used to keep a journal in college and I still remember the time I was in the middle of writing about my father when my childhood memories flooded over me and suddenly everything made sense. From that point on, my viewpoint changed and I became a very different person (a happier, more forgiving one). Reviewing our past to change our future… I completely agree. Thanks for posting this.

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    1. Thanks. This post grew out of contemplations on a similar experience. There really are some things we cannot understand when we’re children, and yet they effect us significantly enough that we remember them. We don’t change anything in the past by remembering it, but we can choose to understand differently. This gives us considerable freedom of choice for the future.

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  8. When remembering things, it is easy to paint ourselves as the hero of whatever narrative we have created. It is much harder to see ourselves as part of the overall truth.
    I’m very impressed by the depth of topics and research going into this post.

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    1. Thanks. I think you’ve brought up the most difficult aspect of memory: we are always the protagonist of our own stories, yet we need to use some objectivity as well. (Or, at least, acknowledge that everyone has her/his point of view.) I’ll have to let these thoughts stew a while… there might be much more to discuss?

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  9. Memory is so important because the processes of memory are the processes of thought itself. Beyond this somewhat obvious fact, memory is the means by which we contemplate truth of self through the ingathering of time. And there is nothing more important than honesty as a writer. St. Augustine writes,

    ‘In that vast court of my memory…. meet I with myself, and recall myself, and when, where, and what I have done, and under what feelings. There be all which I remember, either on my own experience, or other’s credit. Out of the same store do I myself with the past continually combine fresh and fresh likenesses of things which I have experienced, or, from what I have experienced, have believed: and thence again infer future actions, events and hopes, and all these again I reflect on, as present.’

    My favorite writers are T.S. Eliot, Dante, and Joyce. Eliot’s conception of memory throughout his oeuvre (but particularly in Four Quartets) aligns perfectly with St. Augustine’s. Eliot supplements St. Augustine’s theory of memory in stating that it represents the necessary modality for contemplating ‘the still point,’ which I believe, is the intersection of personal and collective, or historic, memory. If I get too far into this I may never stop. In any event, Joyce, Eliot, and Dante were all deep readers St. Augustine and I believe these quotes of Augustine’s are applicable to all their works and also your post. Thanks a lot for this awesome post!

    ‘[While reciting a psalm] my faculty of attention is present all the while, and through it passes what was the future in the process of becoming the past. As the process continues, the province of memory is extended in proportion as that that of expectation is reduced, until the whole of my expectation is absorbed….’

    ‘What is true of the whole psalm is also true of all its parts and of each syllable. It is true of any longer action in which I may be engaged and of which the recitation of the psalm may only be a small part. It is true of a man’s whole life, of which all his actions are parts. It is true of the whole history of mankind, of which man’s life is a part.’

    ‘For memory retains the past by recalling it, the present by receiving it, the future by foreseeing it. It retains the simple, as the principles of continuous and discrete quantities—the point, the instant, the unit—without which it is impossible to remember or to think about those things whose source is in these.’

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    1. John Mendelsohn’s essay for the New Yorker, as linked in the post, discusses St. Augustine’s memoirs and the influence he’s had on autobiographical writing. I learned that St. Augustine’s writing was motivated by a need to contemplate an act of theft which he committed when he was young, and to explore the troubled feelings this had caused him over his life. I’ve had only one encounter with Augustine, about 14 years ago in a class on rhetoric, in which we discussed On Christian Doctrine: Book IV.

      What has stayed with me all these years–and this had a tremendous impact on me–is that writing must call forth compassion from within the writer, as well as the reader. I’ll need to do more reading, but I suspect that the concept of compassion might be the ‘still point’ which you connect to the ‘intersection of personal and collective, or historic, memory.’ Does this seem plausible?

      Augustine’s writings in the essay I mentioned were very focused on a responsible use of rhetoric; he carefully describes the humility and purpose required of those who use words. In essence, we must as writers (be aware of and then) surrender our desires to become open to something larger than our own immediacy and needs. When we do this, we use all the powers of our rhetoric to entertain, engage, teach and guide our readers into that same compassionate connection that we have been given opportunity to express.

      It is a significant compliment to have received your comment, and to have St. Augustine’s writings invoked in this discussion. Thank you for taking the time to share your thoughts.

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    1. It wasn’t… which means your comment added to the reader experience. Thanks! Now I’m going back to finish reading your response to cyborgs on your blog.

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  10. Congrats on being Freshly Pressed! I think we re-write our memories all the time, collectively and as individuals. I find it all the time in the writing I do, and I think your point about writing living at the intersection of memory is quite true.

    This, to me, is how historians here in NZ have got away with almost completely re-writing our past in the image of the present they wish for, a process that has been going on for the last 30 years or so. Much of it is nonsense by any empirical measure – the classic is the notion that New Zealand’s Maori invented trench warfare and it was then stolen by the British for the First World War, which is absurd. A quick glance at any childrens’ book on the history of warfare suffices to show up the falsity of that argument – and yet it has been seriously upheld as a ‘truth’ at the highest academic levels here, to the point where any effort to question it is not merely viewed as wrong, but taken as an attack on the status of those promoting the argument.

    I have no doubt that this local experience is reflected in similar examples around the world. As the lead character of my favourite all-time SF show tells us, ‘time can be re-written’. And so it has been – without, even, any help from a TARDIS!

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    1. Hi Matthew, thanks for commenting; I was wondering what your thoughts would be on this topic. In consideration of what you’ve written on your blog, the question of history and how we rewrite it was on my mind when I was composing this post.

      I’ve also noted a significant revision of the recent history of where I live, on the Canadian prairies. The area opened to settlement in the mid 1890’s and for a period of the first 20 – 25 years of settlement, homesteading became increasingly restrictive, limiting who was allowed to own land on the prairies. As children in school, we never learned about this aspect of prairie settlement, how some groups of people were excluded entirely from citizenship in Canada, or how others were granted homestead rights only to have them revoked later. What seems to be happening in the story-telling now is that the bias that was prevalent throughout the dominating culture of the time is now being transferred to particular individuals, as though they were fully responsible for the most embarrassing acts of mistreatment and abuse of power. There seems to be a scapegoating process unfolding in the story-telling that cleanses the larger community and excuses them from blame. I suppose doing this also reduces social responsibility and avoids accountability now (i.e. compensation for property which was seized from individuals such as the Doukhobors, First Nations People, Chinese immigrants, etc.). At least, this seems to be the most plausible explanation for the huge inconsistencies of information….

      I don’t mind that there are creative spaces in the failure of memory, but when this is accompanied by a lack of responsibility, I worry about what will result. It seems much like the symptoms of mental illness, to be delusional.

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  11. I don’t know, but I have a feeling that you are a great writer. I think you will be one of my great idols in terms of philosophical writing. It makes me anxious while reading your brilliant lines. Indeed, I need more practice in writing.

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    1. I’ve just been to your blog, and I really enjoyed your recent fiction post. You also have a significant personal story you are telling. No need to feel anxious, and do keep writing. :)

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  12. Drawing on past experiences is a wonderful tool and contrasting that with future things that may happen is what gets me going. What would happen to a well known writer that finds himself suddenly dropped in the past? Would the lack of modern conveniences deter his finishing the greatest novel ever written?

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  13. This probably has been the most intresting article on writting Ive ever read. The so called truths we own in out mind are subjective to how we remember them. To remember them is like to live them all over whoever I cant help but feel we continously have wishfull memories added not only each time we tell a story but also each time life is relived. Thank you for the thought provoking script look forward to reading it again tommorrow!

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    1. I agree–wishful thinking is both necessary, to some extent–and dangerous. I suspect we need to cultivate a balance which leads us to living with ourselves and our imperfections, and being honestly accepting of who we are. It’s very hard work, but I believe the rewards are worthy of the task…. and it’s work that never ends, either! (meaning, constant rewards?)

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  14. Interesting post – I suppose I somewhat expect the individual writer to bend their memories to the emotions that they felt at the time of the memory as well as how those emotions may have changed over time. What disturbs me is systematic rearranging of the facts of history to suit a current political or sociological mindset. That smacks to me of the early etymology you spoke of where memories were not being handed down but changed to protect the speaker. How changed would the following generations be based upon the “new” truth rather than the actual truth? Perhaps this has to do with the innate human need to process the facts around us in the lens of our own vision of truth.

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    1. Yes, I wonder about the conflicts between the natural process of developing inaccurate memories and changing our stories for our own wants or needs. When this happens, I think it has the potential to create an uneasy society that follows. Much like a dysfunctional family that guards its secrets, the next generation becomes prone to anxieties it doesn’t understand.

      For those who have had experiences like this, of sensing fragmented truths they cannot reconcile, the storytelling processes can feel quite pained. I’m so often surprised by how many writers and artists have experiences of fear and anxiety within their work. It seems very common to be afraid of lying as we tell our stories. This certainly worries me. Sometimes the fear that I’ll fail to be truthful can hold me silent even more effectively than the shame of what I might expose.

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  15. If each generation could find the foundation, the bedrock, the basis of why they exist, it could be as a “re-set” button to keep mankind from deviating away from truth. This is a tall order, I realize, but for me, it all comes back to the uniqueness and the value of life – and I quote Wordsworth here – “Our birth is but a sleep and a forgetting; the soul that rises within us, our life’s star, hath had elsewhere its setting and cometh from afar. Not in entire forgetfulness, and not in utter nakedness, but trailing clouds of glory do we come from God, who is our home.”

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    1. I was looking at your blog just now. I wanted to see if I understood the re-set button as you use it; I’ve called it a correction line, which is something you probably don’t have in California. On the prairies, the land was surveyed into 160 acre grid parcels, called quarters. A section of land is comprised of four quarters, and each section has road allowances on each side. Square grids don’t fit neatly on to the spherical earth, so to keep the lines in a tidy north-south or east-west orientation, the roads must be jogged at regular intervals. We call these jogs correction lines, which keep travellers on course. We lose a little speed and a little time when we must bend with the line, but they are necessary if we ever hope to get where we’re going. Life seems to have a similar process; we move for periods of time in a fairly steady course, but there are regular correction lines, too.

      Lately, I’ve come to understand this process to be something like maturing compassion, of learning one’s limits while embracing one’s responsibilities. Your writing resonates with me in this regard, and I look forward to reading more.

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  16. What a great picture of staying on course – a correction line – and yes, I agree with you, the process is a maturing compassion and the growth maybe painful but well worth it,

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