Memoir Notebook is a monthly (sometimes more) column dedicated to longer works.
By way of our Memoir Notebook, we want you to meander, get caught up, find yourself taken to places you hadn’t intended to go (but are so glad, in the end, that you went). You’ll get thoughts on aesthetics, craft, latest issues, tips and books to read. But it will feel like poetic narrative. And sometimes it will simply be poetic narrative. Today, Wm. Anthony Connolly talks about the work of a memoirist.
Try this. Choose a person. Someone you see a lot, but not every day. When you see this person, take your fingers and press firmly against your eyes for 10 to 20 seconds until various colors arise. Try to memorize the pattern. The colors. Practice this every time you meet this person. After six months you should be able to recall the person. Virtually. By pressing your eyes together. Even after the chosen person has died.
Begin with the poet. Begin with the poet that lived that day, while others didn’t. Start with the one outside the collapsed edifice, rubbing at the eyes, thinking, and seeing a shimmer of ghosts. Now, where was who?
Begin with the ghost. The one that lived long ago and lingers on so. Sitting where “X” marks the spot clutching Pixie sticks and playing Tiddlywinks; singing: “Play with me and I’ll always be, ” along and alone buried with a pattern of music. Now, who was where?
You’ll never forget me sings the memoirists’ we, their meeting place midway between pen tip and paper, the miniscule void between finger and key, the pocket-sized galaxy between then and now.
Memoirs and memoir are French words for memory. Some have suggested that a memoir is not so much about what happened, but to whom; memoir is not concerned with the writer as epicenter, but rather a writer as character. The writer of a memoir is a persona, one formed from imagination. After all, the goal is to create a story. “I could write down what I remembered; or I could craft a memoir. One might be the truth; the other, a good story…” writes memoirist Nancy K. Miller, author of But Enough About Me: Why We Read Other People’s Lives.
Writers of fiction invent, writers of nonfiction, of memoirs, imagine. Fiction writers don’t necessarily require readers to believe, but willingly suspend disbelief; nonfiction writers seek to have readers believe in what might have happened and more importantly to whom.
A Slab of Wax
It is Socrates that believes memory to be a slab of wax in the soul. For his illustration he says we are to imagine a signet ring being pressed against wax. When the hand is removed, the signet’s impression remains. This is memory. On our soul’s memory something has been impressed, and has left its outline. Its absence bears its presence. But what are we left with but an outline, an impression, not of the thing itself, but what is left behind.
For the Culler’s Culled
Memory is faulty.
Memory is fiction.
Need I trot out the experts? Should you want an extended investigation of memory a good text to read is John Kotre’s White Gloves: How We Create Ourselves Through Memory. Or, seek out any cognitive scientist in your neighborhood, invite them over for coffee and casually ask while dropping in the lumps of sugar, “So: Memory. How does it work?”
For now: “The past is open to revision because memory is a function of present intention, ” writes Sam Keen in Telling Your Story; David Shields writes in Reality Hunger: “Human memory, driven by emotional self-interest, goes to extraordinary lengths to provide evidence to back up whatever understanding of the world we have our heart set on — however removed that may be from reality.” Not to put too fine a point on it, “Anything processed by memory is a fiction, ” writes Shields. In other words — we make up our memories from mere impressions, and those impressions for the memoirist is the writer’s former self. The hand of a memoirist grapples then with nothing much more than tendrils. It is not the gathering that is of most importance. Most vital is the gatherer. The gatherer is both culler and culled. A memoirist writes about how they see the world from what has been culled.
To the Land of the Invisible
Hannah Arendt in her volume on thinking The Life of The Mind states that memory stores for us what is “no more” and that this is only possible, in a modes of imagination – making present what is absent – by withdrawing “from the present and the urgencies of everyday life.” She quotes Augustine as saying, we perceived through our senses and in this way an impression is made upon our consciousness and stored in memory, “ready to become a vision in thought the moment the mind gets a hold of it.” But, “what remains in memory… is one thing, and…something else arises when we remember.” She says this kind of thinking then is a withdrawing from the immediate, to a land invisible to everyone but the thinker in a most important process “of which I would know nothing had I not this faculty of remembering and imagining.” In this land, the poet summons ghosts.
Where The Poet tries to Remember
Long ago, Scopas, a nobleman of Thessaly, a western region in Ancient Greece, rented a poet for the day, to come to a banquet and recite some verse. The poet was Simonides, writer Frances Yates related in her book The Art of Memory.
He chanted a lyric poem, including a reference to twin decreased mythological wonders, Castor and Pollux, which displeased his host.
The host said fine, I’m only going to pay you half what I owe you because you brought up those two.
Later, Simonides got a message — a page if you will — that two men were wanting to speak with him outside.
Simonides left the banquet hall, but could find no one.
While outside, the roof of the hall collapsed crushing to death all the guests inside.
To be expected it was not a pretty picture inside. Mangled corpses. So mangled that relatives could not identify the bodies to be buried.
Call in the poet.
Simonides could identify the bodies. He remembered where they were sitting in the banquet hall.
This allowed the relatives to claim the proper body for burial.
It seems, the legend goes, Castor and Pollux paid Simonides well for the mention. But Simonides was also rewarded with the realization that orderly arrangement is essential for good memory.
He suggested in training one’s memory, one should simply imagine a hall or any such edifice, and form mental pictures of the things they want to remember and place these things inside the structure, each to a room.
“We shall employ the places and images respectively as a wax writing-tablet and the letters written on it, ” Cicero quotes the poet as instructing.
We have the “art” of memory.
The Orderly Arrangement
The memoirist must be a note-keeper, a gatherer of words and impressions, ideas and sensations — a hunter of ghosts. Keep a notebook. So says Samuel Pepys who kept a daily diary of his life in the 17th century; or modern memoirist Joan Didion or Susan Sontag.
Keep morning pages. Keep mourning pages. Enact a ritual of conservation, a preservation of memory in an orderly arrangement in order to recall who was where. Stare, close your eyes, imagine, and see what presence arises from what was left behind. Write.
A notebook traps ghosts. It can save your life, insists Louise DeSalvo in her seminal work Writing as a Way of Healing: How Telling our Stores Transforms our Lives. Didion in her famous essay “On Keeping a Notebook, ” writes that we should keep tabs with our formers selves, because we are bound to forget them if we don’t.
Besides, anything of importance should be written down. Not everything is traceable, not everything has a flashpoint, a crater; not every event is there a flag planted, nor a singing voice in the incessant chorus of history. Chatter dies, syllables on the page last, if only longer. So much is lost, if there are no attempts at conservation. Imagine a structure, put things in rooms. I am a conservationist and I am in the conservation business as a memoirist. But of what exactly, other than ghosts, am I preserving I’m unclear, other than I record that which speaks to me in a tug, or a whisper, a repetitive presence clutching Pixie Sticks and playing Tiddlywinks. The poet, the ghost, and “X” mark its spot.
The Folie a Deux
There is a tension between the one who remembers, and the remembered one, and it comes together in one spot, that spot between the I-now and the person you are remembering in the memoir, the past tense you, the I-then, as Virginia Woolf calls it. Together it constitutes a “we.” Some might say it’s a folie a deux — madness shared by two/madness shared by you and another you that lingers so.
You are the poet.
The past collapses in the present and you stand amongst the ruins, doubled, at once quick and dead, flesh and phantom, but yearning still to sing “Play with me and I’ll always be.” In this, the space between pen tip and paper, the miniscule void between finger and key, century; or modern memoirist Joan Didion and essayist the pocket-sized galaxy, the memoirist comes to know: The ghost?
Oh, it’s me.
Look in the mirror.
Close your eyes and press firmly with your fingers.
Colors. Open, and look away, again.
Even if that person is long gone.
Shimmering beauty, powerful. Marchenko brought me to new levels of awareness regarding the struggles of a special needs family.
—Bill Giovannetti, author of Secrets to a Happy Life