Tuesday, 11 December 2012

On memory

One of the short stories I am working on looks at a chap who thinks the best way to get on in life is to constantly learn and fill himself with information…to the detriment of his sanity. Every time I sit down to write, it forces me to think about how to get the emotion of a feeling across when describing a situation, as I want him to come across human and not a robot. What does it mean not to forget? Is it information that makes us better people? For me, that is one of the biggest challenges I face as a person trying to improve their writing. I have an idea and I want to connect it to a theme that I am interested in but there is a valley so deep and wide between them that must be crossed in order to create a story.
            When I originally went through all my notes, the folders full of scraps of paper I had kept since I was a kid, a lot of the jottings, whether they were just a couple of sentences or a more developed outline, I remembered where and when I wrote them. It may have been because I could recall the occasion as something interesting or different had happened, for instance, even though it was probably fifteen years prior, when I picked up one particular torn out notebook page I instantly recalled writing it, I was in the top floor of a Burger King in Bromley, Kent. It was a cold day and I really wanted to be outside writing in the small park behind the theatre but my hands were trembling from the cold too much so I decided to sit down for something to eat and warm up. I was looking out of the window onto the busy high street below and being 15 or so I may have been focusing a bit too much on girls walking past and on this occasion there were a group of four or five girls walking down the road and I really ‘fancied’ one of the girls in particular, so being at a high vantage point with the people below unaware of anything above their eye level I felt safe enough to stare. Along they walked giggling at whatever they were giggling at, when as they were just about to pass my window, the one particular girl I liked turned her head up and looked directly at me, no glancing around, just a direct lock of eyes. The rest of the girls in the group paid no attention and carried on bustling down the road unaware of me whilst this girl stared constantly at me. I was of course petrified she had caught me but was unable to move an inch even as my face went beetroot red. Then she turned back to her friends and carried on walking with them and that was that. It must have lasted 90 seconds at the absolute most but I remember it clearly and even today my body can recreate the shudder of the embarrassment at being caught out. Now this probably happens to everyone every day, I stare out of the window all the time (Disclaimer. I am 33 now and do not eyeball 15 year old girls, I am just talking generally!), from a car, or a train, or whatever and people weirdly and suddenly turn around and you have a second of awkwardness and then redirect your gaze. Happens all the time. Other jolts of memory can come from senses bringing you back to places you may have been, the taste of food on a particular holiday, the smell of perfume, perhaps snow reminds you of being young, and on and on. So why do I remember this occasion half a lifetime ago? Is it because writing is as much of a sense as smell or sound? Was it because I was in a state of awareness as I had brought a pen and pad to write? Was it because I was on my own and bored? Was it because I was 15 and the hormones were raging? Was it because the whopper was so damn tasty? Aside from that moment I can remember a lot of the other seemingly mundane occasions when a lot of my ideas were written and I have no idea why. Whatever the reasons, what I am interested in here is how after all those years I can reflect on that moment and recreate it in a story but as someone who wants to write well, I don’t want to just physically and geographically copy what happened but I want to express the characters, I want to convince people that 15 year old is real, that the emotions felt are believable and I want to be happy that I have recreated a moment in a person’s life in its entirety. I want to combine reality with imagination. It’s difficult!
            Now there are plenty of times when a more significant event triggers a memory and if that memory is painful then it usually doesn’t take much to get flooded with emotion. The reason why I chose to write my blog on this subject this week is that over the weekend I was sorting through my wardrobe in preparation for a short weekend holiday and hidden away in between two dark coats were a pair of beige trousers. Before you jump to the conclusion that I remembered immediately where I was when I committed the crime of buying beige trousers, it wasn’t that, I wore those trousers the night a girlfriend who I loved very much, for want of a better phrase, dumped me. At the time I obviously put the trousers away out of sight and even though this was some time ago now I hadn’t found them since. For a few minutes the memory worked in its typical way, I visualized the night, I had smells and sounds appear out of nowhere in my mind, and there were large lumps of haziness between more specific focused memories. (Then I grabbed them and stuffed them in the bin.)
Now the interesting thing for someone who wants to write about emotions is that we often attach significance to moments that probably weren’t there, we go over certain phrases or looks or movements and wonder if that meant something that we missed at the time, we become personal investigators, sleuths combing through the past, but the fun part is that we don’t need a single piece of evidence! We can make it up as we go along, but of course it has to be based on reality, I can alter the past, I can alter the memory, but what I can’t do is alter what humans feel. I need to make it believable and honest but sourced from a creation of my own.
            Another memory I have is of a friend of mine, Ruairi, buying me a present just before my GCSE exams (around 16 years of age, the last compulsory exams we take before leaving school). He bought me a copy of a Tony Buzan book on how to improve your memory, he bought it I think because his sister had a copy and he thought it was great, something like that (memory can be unreliable ;) I read it and really took it in, I used his principles and techniques and it worked, I think it really helped me study for my exams. So there is always the scientific approach, how we can improve our memory and concentration, but in story telling we want to draw on more than just facts and figures, statistics and so on. We need to combine all factors to allow the readers to immerse themselves without being jolted out of the world we have created because something jars with their sense of realism. On top of that I don’t want my stories to be forced in a certain plot direction because I need to add in my own memories so as to write convincingly, I want to create what I feel is right for that story and have the confidence in my writing to take that character somewhere unexpected.
How do we do that then? How do we then recreate from our personal memories, or lessons from memories, for someone else to read that although fiction to them, can easily be their reality, and do justice to that memory, not just describe the situation but really take ourselves back and find that emotion that can deliver a powerful message, can make you feel you are there again, perhaps in a new situation? Actors work hard to be able to draw on memories to not just remember an emotion, say sadness, but to actually feel that emotion again, put them back into that state so it looks, sounds and feels real. For me, as I said above, it is the most challenging of skills but also the most rewarding, I never could have imagined how excited I would get at just the thought of writing, the thought of trying to put my emotions down on the page. Just thinking of a memory, no matter how old, is different for me now, I examine them so much more, it’s almost an assault, I’m not happy until I have battered that memory from all angles to ensure I have gotten all I can from it.
It can be painful, you sometimes don’t realise how things have affected you, how you have stifled a memory because it means more than you allowed yourself to accept at the time. I didn’t want to think of think of the night I mentioned above but the innocuous sight of a pair of trousers made me! I have to learn not to hide from those moments but grasp them and use them.
I have had many such moments over the years. Sorry to say something that sounds quite depressing but I don’t like myself as much as I used to because I realise how badly I have behaved on occasion, or how I have not been the man I thought I was. By forgetting the bad things about us we elevate ourselves to judge and executioner of others, but it doesn’t take much self-reflection to realise that we are not what we think we are. We all have our faults but it is not everyone’s job to remember them and examine them. Maybe that will make me a better writer, I don’t know. Maybe by being honest with myself about times when I didn’t treat people well, or ignored people, or hurt people and admitting my responsibilities, even if they are not so called big deals, I have never killed anyone for instance, that’s an obvious thing to say, but not everything has to be on that scale of impact, we are all hurt by the simple things and in my writing that is what I want to focus on, the pressures we all feel about the everyday. Maybe by opening myself up to my failings (as well as my glorious amazing brilliant side of course ;) I can write honestly, and I really want my writing to be honest, whether it is based on a situation, an experience or a memory of my own, or not.
So I feel that I may not have appreciated my memory enough, I happen to have a pretty good memory and on occasion it drives me mad because I hate not being able to forget things, or the way my brain forces information on to me that I don’t necessarily want, so I have actually wished sometimes to not have such a vivid memory. Now I am taking writing more seriously I do not wish that anymore, as much of a pain in the backside as it can sometimes be, I need it.
So to finish off for the week, a moment of general housekeeping can take you back to painful moments, reading an old notebook can take you back to being a sulky teenager, just talking with friends can remind you of crazy madcap moments long forgotten. That’s how it works, we experience simple things around us every day, but if we are interested in doing something with those moments do we have the inner strength to focus, concentrate, examine, investigate and then tell the world about them? What about that Newton fellow and something about an apple? That seems pretty good story telling.

Hour’s up.


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