When You Must Be Brief, But Have So Much to Say…

February 11, 2010 § 4 Comments


A fascinating look at hyperthymesia and the struggle to write briefly when one remembers so much, from Elane Johnson, author of  the hyper-vivid  Aftermath in Brevity 32:

Here’s a disorder that—especially to a memoirist— sounds welcome and advantageous: Hyperthymesia. Otherwise known as hyperthymestic syndrome or piking, the “extraordinary recall of autobiographical events” seems like it would be more fun than a sack full of fresh puppies. Being able to remember everything effortlessly? Yeah! No more studying for tests, forgetting an acquaintance, losing at Trivial Pursuit. There are only four documented cases of hyperthymesia in the world, but that’s because I’ve never mentioned to any University of California researchers that I remember in stunning detail the smells, sights, sounds, emotions—even conversations—from way more minutes of my life than I should.

Remembering does have its benefits. There really is no need to study for a test when I can “see” the page in the social studies textbook where the answers are. Credit card and bank account numbers are at my beck and call. Plus I know all of my ex-husbands’ Social Security numbers. Sweet. But like even the best Snickers bar ever, anything delightful is required to have an equal amount of crap to balance things out and make your thighs rub viciously together when you walk. Like: People with my address can’t stand my verbatim play-backs of our arguments. Every injury I’ve ever had feels the same as the first time in my never-ending mental home movie. And the entire soundtrack of Evita (starring Madonna) plays in real time in my head at 3 AM. I can’t forget. If I try to forget, I just remember even harder.

Juggling years and years and years of details makes for cumbersome writing.

I used to send all my pieces to my writer-boyfriend for editing, and he’d send them back with 24-point bold comments like, “WAY TOO F******* LONG!” Then a professor in my M.F.A. program assigned a “moment of being” a la Virginia Woolf, and I began “Aftermath.” I had that final line skulking around my skull, but I started retelling the incident as a narrative, and I had 1000 words before I even climbed in the Winnebago. It’s completely ironic that I, a student who never saw a word limit she didn’t double, found my first piece published in Brevity. I am loath to excise a syllable, but I forced myself to scrap the complete sentences, and I conjured up a time line. When I finished, I couldn’t believe I had this manic “after-after-after” monster that just worked. I remember laughing deliriously as the title became obvious. Of course I remember. It was 2:27 AM on a Friday. In February. Snowflakes pirouetted in the front yard flood lights; even though I had stuffed them into fuzzy fuchsia socks forty-five minutes earlier, my feet still hurt from the cold …

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§ 4 Responses to When You Must Be Brief, But Have So Much to Say…

  • Tim Elhajj says:

    Holy cow! That’s some story. I like how it veers into its surprising end. But this post is some story about the story, too. I find I can’t write non-fiction until some time has passed. I have always assumed that this time was necessary to forget some stuff and forge a story. How hard would it be to have to organically forget? I can only imagine.

    • Elane Johnson says:

      Hi, Tim-
      Huh. I never thought about the need for time/distance until you mentioned it. I think you’re right, that the truth can’t surface until it has glided through the murky waters for a bit, and maybe–because it has nothing on which to feed–lost some of its insulating fat. Perhaps that’s why my musings on recent events suckkkkkkkkk. 🙂
      Elane

  • Stephen Ulrich says:

    Your usually exceptional simultaneous grasp of both the subtle and the profound, Elane. Your writing, as always, is as seamlessly elegant as it is pointedly concise. You take the title “wordsmith extraordinaire” to new levels.

    Stephen

    • Elane Johnson says:

      Now, now. Calling me concise is about as accurate as labeling Toyota reliable! But all that other stuff you said…I’ll take it!
      Elane

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