What really Happened?: Memory, Story, History
Writers draw on and play with their memories constantly, as a way of mining themselves and the world; not in order to write memoir necessarily, but because they need to log each human impulse, foresee every scenario, inhabit all the multiple versions of life they could have lived - the decisions they might have made. But what if you're not very good at keeping memories? What if the past is foggy, to you?
I used to regret my poor long-term memory - to worry I was missing great chunks of experience I might need later, as though - on my journey through life - I had carelessly dropped some essential supplies from my rucksack. I don't really remember much about being at university, for example. Even putting aside the deteriorating effects of the mammoth amount of hash I managed to smoke in that time, and the gallons of cider I drank, this seems surprising. Who was I, then? All I have are some old photos and some fragments to call on. I do remember seeing Nirvana play Kilburn: one momentous thing is logged.*
I wrote last week about how, when I look back at my first twelve months of blogging, I see I have made 2015 unforgettable, to me, by recording it. Even though I wasn't supposed to be writing about myself, of course I wrote myself in and there it all is - the insomnia, the running, the reading, the mothering, art + work + love. And, because journaling and remembering are acts of both creation and re-creation, I am aware I have done more than simply log my thoughts and experiences - I have spun them into narrative, and those narratives will define and inspire the way I see this time in my life, when I look back, because these are my memories, now.
When we write about a day, or an idea, or a friend, or a passion, we add colour to that day; detail to our ideas; character to our friend; lustre to our passions. The act of writing about something, changes that thing, and the way we see and remember it forever. What we do, when we turn something or someone over in our minds, and express our thoughts and feelings about them in words, is to imprint today onto them, and to shape them with language. We're all involved in these acts of memory re-making: cropping photos into tinted squares on Instagram, or digesting a whole day into 140 characters on Twitter, or writing one another letters or emails about ourselves, or diary-writing. We are imprinting, changing, spinning, yes - creative writing - when we remember.
Writers instinctively understand that 'what really happened' in the past quickly loses significance, when set against what we feel or believe happened, now. Therapists know that it is quite possible to remake one's experiences through revisiting them and telling our stories with different endings. They use the mutability of our histories to guide us past trauma. It works. Storytelling is the answer to the question of what happened: we book-lovers know that, in our hearts.
But although our fictions are beautiful, every invention begins with some small memory, some real seed born of our actual lives. It is our everyday first-hand experience which serves as the spark: which inspires and feeds our memories, our imaginations, our creative writing.
So, what is real, to you, today? What colour, the sky? How heavy your workload? How shrill the children? How is the street, the train, the tea, the view? What will you remember? What should be recorded, changed, remade? What will you write? What will you keep, as a way back in? What ticket stub? Teenagers have it right, with their albums of selfies. We were the same: we had the photobooth, kids.
The author's love of language and literature is a way of burrowing a way into real life. The ivory tower is empty: the true writers are down in the town, handing the hat round, panning for gold from society, scratching away at their own skin, eavesdropping in shops and stealing from lovers on street corners; they're wandering in forests, climbing mountains, getting sweaty, trying to keep the map the right way up and resorting to breadcrumbs, hoping the birds don't find them first.
Happy wandering, in 2016. Drop some crumbs, so you can find your way back to these memories, later: Write.
*In writing this blog, I stumbled upon a recording of the legendary gig I went to in 1991. How strange it was, to listen to the concert again for the first time in nearly 25 years. It was just as fantastic as I remembered it, and wholly new too. I am so glad I didn't find it for a quarter of a century: I have been burnishing my memories, recreating the guitar, the sweat, the buzz, the bruises. I like my version the best.
One baby to another says - I'm lucky to have met you