The Clarity of Memory in “On The Third Day”

February 4, 2013 § 3 Comments

TomMoranWe regularly ask Brevity authors if they would write a short blog post on the genesis of the essay just published.  Today, Tom Moran tells us how he came to write “On the Third Day.”

Writing this piece made me keenly aware of the fascinating clarity of memory and, at the same time, its limitations.  The events described in the story occurred some fifty-five years in the past.  But, summoned from my memory, the arrival of that tall, skinny kid into our classroom is as clearly defined as if I were watching it from a Blue-ray disc.  I can see sharp images of the classroom, the view out the windows, our teacher in the front, the rows of desks.  Even the well-worn flooring beneath my own desk.   But that is all I remember.  I can’t recall the face of a single other student in that class.  No what their name was.  Or what they looked like.   I was together with most of them for a full year of classes.  Many of them shared other classes with me.   But as I try to recall who they were, any details about them,  conversations we had, I find only a void.   They are forgotten extras in the story that was my experience.  But, somehow, the tall, skinny kid who I only knew for three days resides there, clear and seemingly indelible.

When these events took place I was young and in the midst of trying to adapt to a very big life change.  My family had just moved from a small town in Pennsylvania’s anthracite region to a big city on the edge of the even bigger Los Angeles.  The school that I had previously attended was a combined junior-senior high l with a total enrollment of just less than five hundred students spread over six grades.  In California I was entering a three-year high school and my entering sophomore class numbered well over a thousand students by itself.  I was the new kid in, for me, a very strange world.  Every experience was challenging and intimidating.

My introduction to this new classmate and the subsequent events in the alleyway were clearly dramatic and heightened my awareness, helping them become more firmly embedded in memory.  As I wrote, it was clear that the crux of the piece was violence and its sudden escalation, a subject of far too many recent news bulletins.  But I don’t think the violence was the real reason those memories were retained so vividly.  Instead, I feel the memories and the story they generated came from how alien that new environment seemed to me, how challenging and surprising immersion in a new culture can be for an adolescent.  For anyone.   I remembered and wrote about the tall, skinny kid because he was strange.  But, so was I.

This must be valuable because it lingered: On Writing “Into the Fable”

September 20, 2011 § 3 Comments

Joe Bonomo meditates on memory, experience, and the uncertain impulse behind his Brevity 37 essay “Into the Fable.”

“We store in memory only images of value,” Patricia Hampl writes in I Could Tell You Stories.  “The value may be lost over the passage of time…but that’s the implacable judgment of feeling: This, we say somewhere within us, is something I’m hanging on to.”

Like many smart observations about the nature of autobiography, Hampl’s has as much to do with what it means to be a human as with what it means to be a writer. Like all provocations, it invites argument and skepticism.  I’ve been silently quarreling with Hampl for years; I want to believe that she’s correct, that when I scroll the mental files and land on that one image repeatedly, it’s meaningful beyond me, that it’s personal, not merely private.  But I can’t be sure.  Even images that have lived in me for decades — a sibling’s facial expression, a friend’s walk, a girl’s eyes, that tree stump, those buildings in a row — may be, from the writer’s perspective, meaningless.

But part of me needs to believe Hampl’s assertion.  Writing “Into The Fable,” I trusted an instinct very close to hers: this must be valuable because it lingered.  Is John D.’s image saying something to me, in a language that I don’t know, or have lost?  And is that something valuable, or inessential? I like to believe that when an image tattoos us, the ink stain is a kind of Rorschach test: its mystery may at first be untranslatable, but with time and curiosity, and plenty of side-glances away, it’s articulated, saying something that, if I’m lucky, broaches epiphany. Have I successfully translated John D. in “Into The Fable”?  An image sometimes struggles with MSL issues: Memory as a Second Language.  I think I get the gist of him.  But Walter Benjamin writes, “Any translation which intends to perform a transmitting function cannot transmit anything but information — hence, something inessential.”  When you’re converting a memory-image — that soundless .gif file — you’re working at an even greater disadvantage, paraphrasing music, interpreting moving but noiseless mouths, the transmitted information received as intuition, or as guesses.  You stake your belief on the value of the image when it may be memory’s equivalent of a found photo: intriguing, mysterious, ghostly-narrative, vaguely urgent, but ultimately pointless.

Annie Dillard says, “Fiction makes sense of imagined experience; nonfiction makes sense of actual experience.”  But of course actual experience is reimagined every second, even, arguably, as it’s happening.  Why distinguish between imagined and actual experience?  (Charles Lamb’s “Dream Children: A Reverie” is maybe ninety-eight percent fiction — that is, imagined — and all the more wrenching because of that.)  Plagued by a recurring image of a school friend, I’m tempted to fill in the blanks, to imagine, as a fiction writer might, the surrounding narrative details and context, the back story that brought John D. to that trivial spot in time.  Instead I write about what isn’t there, trusting in actual experience, however limited and partially-known.  The image says, if I’m hearing it right through the static, this is all you need.

Where Did I Leave My Truth

April 21, 2009 § 1 Comment

From Brevity contributor Gary Presley:

In the midst of reviewing Where Did I Leave My Glasses? for The Internet Review of Books, I stumbled upon a neurological star chart which might be useful for writers exploring the edge of the universe between truth and reality. Here is a sample:

” … computer remembers all or nothing. No in-between. Whereas the brain is filled with in-between. Think of it this way: What you put into the computer is an abstraction of your experience. Retrieve it, and it’s unchanged. What you remember is an abstraction of that experience, then a reconstruction of the abstraction, then a reconstruction of the reconstruction of the abstraction, and so on and on and on—every time you retrieve it. And of course, the more time that passes, the truer this becomes.”

I think regularly about the muddy mixture of objective fact and subjective truth as it applies to the art of creative nonfiction, particularly memoir. While I know a writer has the obligation to quote correctly and describe accurately, I also know that when we set out to explore the swamp of self, we often get tangled up in the jungle of emotions.

Ignore the book’s light-hearted title. Lear tackled the subject of memory by consulting psychologists and neuro-scientists of every stripe. It was especially fascinating to follow her as she explored the idea that our writing comes from the place where memory lives, which in Lear’s description is “palimpsest,” a tablet of layered text, each preceding layer imperfectly erased.

I love the art of memoir, in book form and in personal essay, but even pre-Frey, I approached the such works believing that the writer was telling only a truth rather than the truth. Lear’s work reinforces both my skepticism and my faith.

As a reader, I am forgiving, although not quite so cynical as Ambrose Bierce, who said truth is “an ingenious compound of desirability and appearance.”

But after reading Where Did I Leave My Glasses? I think I have moved away from the idea of “truths” to the point where I believe that “truths” are merely opinions about truths, but that doesn’t mean I will easily forgive you if you choose to lie to me.

Gary Presley‘s work has appeared once in Brevity, his thoughts about writing several times here on the Brevity‘s blog, and his book (Seven Wheelchairs: A Life beyond Polio) from The University of Iowa Press and into bookstores.

Of Mystery and Regret

January 27, 2009 § 3 Comments

From Laura Sewell Matter:

necklace-sea-star1Just a few weeks after I submitted “The Crab in the Stars” to Brevity and a few weeks before I received the editor’s response accepting it for inclusion in Issue 29, I got a call from my mother to tell me that my grandmother, about whom I had written in this essay, was dead.

I made my arrangements to attend the funeral, held in the same church where my grandfather’s had been held almost twenty years earlier. I sat in a pew while my cousin (the one who had been most wracked with hilarity at the minister’s misapplied lipstick, last time around) calmly delivered a eulogy extolling my grandmother’s selflessness and love of family, “practical” gifts (dickeys anyone?) and stocked cookie jars. It started out exactly the way a grandmother’s funeral should be. But when we got to the cemetery and crowded under a small tent over the open grave, while rain fell around us, a veritable plague of mosquitoes laid siege. I think my mother might have landed the first blow on my father’s head to kill one that had lighted upon his temple. Pretty soon we were all slapping them off each other and ourselves, swatting and scratching while the ceremony went on around us, trying to minimize profane utterances in light of the occasion. Not even the minister (a man, this time) could keep from smacking a mosquito on his forehead while intoning the bit about ashes and dust, leaving a smear of blood over his eye.

What struck me as troubling when I was twelve—the fact that life goes on, in all of its absurdity, even when something awful happens that ought to require us take a solemn and reflective pause—now seems like reason for delight.

I suppose there are two reasons why I wrote “The Crab in the Stars” in the first place: 1) A mystery: I was haunted for years by the image of the man in the bike helmet who came to our door, to the extent that I could not think of my grandfather’s death without thinking of this stranger as well, and it was curious to me that he should remain so persistently in my memory, even though I don’t now believe that his presence meant anything at all. 2) A regret: I did not stay with my grandmother to wait for the coroner and other family members (those more capable of consoling her, perhaps) instead of retreating into my own mind after learning of my grandfather’s death. I don’t entirely blame my twelve-year-old self, and I’m pretty sure my grandmother never held it against me either, but I do regret it all the same. Writing a vaguely self-implicating essay seemed like the only way to atone.

I wonder what she would have said if I could have showed her the essay—whether she would have been able to affirm or contradict my recollections of these events, and how she would have felt about it now. In the end, she outlived the habits of gentleness and propriety that had characterized her for most of her life; she spent her final days in nursing homes where she occasionally made inappropriate references to sex and dumped glasses of orange juice on other old ladies. Her memory had been failing for years. Part of me just wants to feel bad about it, but another part of me thinks that being able to see all of this as an interesting (and, frankly, hilarious) story is a better way to get by.


Crazy Little Thing Called Memory

January 9, 2009 § 10 Comments

The New York Times reported recently about yet another scandal, this one with quite a twist. Apparently, the Christmas essay Neale Donald Walsch posted at a few weeks ago was plagiarized from an essay Candy Chand published in Clarity ten years ago.

The essay relates the story of the writer’s young son (both Walsch and Chand have sons named Nicholas) participating in a school Christmas pageant. When members of the choir were meant to hold up letters spelling the name of the song “Christmas Love,” the girl with the “m” held hers up upside down, creating the phrase “Christ Was Love.”

Heartwarming, yes. Which is why it has been circulated around the internet for years, where Walsch apparently found it. It’s beginning to look a lot like plagiarism.

But here’s the trick: Walsch is claiming that he actually believed the story was his own. He had told the story so many times since first hearing it that somehow his memory wove it into his own experience. When he meant to remember the words on the page, his mind provided images instead—of his own Nicholas no doubt—and he took it for a real memory.

Sounds plausible, but many are skeptical.

As one whose mother has corrected his memory on more than one occasion, I want to believe Walsch. But does that excuse him? Is it still plagiarism if it’s unconscious plagiarism? And what does it say about the memories we write that aren’t being claimed by someone else? Are they to be trusted? How do we manage our memory?

DG, M.E.

User Error: On Memory and Nonfiction

September 21, 2008 § 3 Comments

From Brian Oliu, author of  “Virus 1″ in Brevity 28:

This essay came as a result of an “end-user error” on my part; I had originally written an essay reflecting on my birth and what I had ascertained to be the truth around the medical complexity of the situation.  Upon hearing a reading of the piece, my mother explained that this is not how it happened at all; there was no C-section.  I felt terrible about getting the story wrong all of these years, and especially relaying something that is considered to be non-fiction whereas it turned out I had gotten perhaps the most important fact incorrect.  As a result of this, I began to question all of these “made-up” memories about my childhood that had been passed down to me.

Naturally, I don’t remember being born or getting injured as a small child, but through stories and recounted information it is as if I created that memory, and therefore it was as valid as the experience itself.  I equated this idea to the computer virus; how these viruses fill in gaps left by human error in order to create new things and make programs do specific actions or simply overload the file with too much information.  These installed concepts “infect” us, causing our ideas to become more erratic, finally spitting out an amalgamation of truth, ideal, and excess coding.

Of Memory

May 16, 2008 § 2 Comments

brainOddly enough, I’d bet this guy’s memoir (if he wanted to write one) would be tedious and lacking in the satisfactions we seek in personal reflection. I don’t know what that means — and I certainly don’t know if it would indeed be true — but it strikes me as an interesting counterpoint to our continual questioning of memory’s tendency to shave off the sharp edges and soften the lines:

Man’s rare ability may unlock secret of memory

LA CROSSE, Wisconsin (CNN) — Give Brad Williams a date, and he can usually tell you not only what he was doing but what world events happened that day. He can do this for almost every day of his life.

Williams is one of only three people in the world identified with this off-the-charts autobiographical memory, according to researchers at the University of California-Irvine who gave the condition its name: hyperthymestic syndrome, from the Greek words for excessive (hyper) and remembering (thymesis).

Unlike most people whose memories fade with time, much of Williams’ life is etched indelibly in his mind.

“It’s just there,” said Williams, 51, who reports the news for a family of radio stations in La Crosse, Wisconsin.

The researchers are studying Williams and the two others with hyperthymestic syndrome, a man in Ohio and woman in California, hoping to gain new insights into how a superior memory works.

— Dinty

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