The Art of Memory

We were sitting in an Indian restaurant in Brighton. The party was split over two tables as there was not room for all 18 to sit at one. The parents, grandparents and children sat at the larger one at right-angles and a few feet away from the smaller table, just 6 of us; Julia and I, our old friends Robin and Lesley, and two of Lesley’s friends from her time years before in Brighton, Phil and Richard. The poppadoms and chutneys had been consumed along with the first glasses of wine and we had settled in for what looked like it would be a long wait for our meals. There was no hurry and the early conversation was about how Lesley had got to know them. Phil had been a teacher in the same school as her and Richard had worked with Lesley’s daughter Judy. Like Judy but sometime later, he had moved to Hong Kong to work there for a few years before bringing his family home to Brighton to take up a headship there.

The conversation inevitably got round to writing as I, Phil Lesley and Robin had all been involved one way or another with creative writing – Lesley had written stories, Robin a family memoir, Phil a variety of things including scripts for his stand-up comedian gigs and I had just embarked on a creative writing course as a retirement project. We were talking about the inspirations for writing and I told about how on the course we were doing a series of exercises that were designed to unlock our creative potential and help us get writing.

One of the exercises had asked us to take a memory, however brief and fragmentary, from childhood and develop it into a short story, very short as we were limited to 350 words to be read at the next class. It didn’t have to be true account and the story could be entirely fictitious. The memory was just the seed on which to build the narrative. I have very few memories of childhood, even up to the age of 12 or 13 but I found that any memory, however isolated and devoid of context was enough to start an imaginative basis for an account of a time, a place, and event. What surprised and pleased me is that although I expected to develop a piece of fiction the process seemed to expand the memory in a way that was plausible, even authentic. Aspects of the time, the place and the event seemed to emerge almost unbidden and I recognised them as real. Robin found something similar when writing his memoir. In writing his own memories down in the early stages of his project he, like me, found that other memories came to mind as if they were there all the time but needed the focus of writing to dig them up.

I compared this to the theory that every experience, emotion, thought we had ever had was somewhere in the depths of our unconscious, like the layers of silt and debris that accumulates over the years at the bottom of a pond. The few memories we have later in life, when reflected upon with a conscious effort but without the shackle of trying to remember exactly and objectively what happened, in other words as a sort of reverie, act as a stick that stirs the silt and lets long ago sedimented material come to the surface, first appearing as dark imprecise objects in the middle depths where a little light gets through and gradually coming into clearer focus, more detail and colour, as they rise into the full light of consciousness. Or as if the agitation of reflecting on the fragmentary memory on the surface creates an eddy that stirs the murkier depths and allows some of the debris of the unconscious to detach itself and float nearer to the surface.

It is a similar process to the strategy I used when revising for exams at University. I used to take copious lecture notes, often two sides of A4 per lecture. For revision I would condense each lecture through several stages until I had about 5 or 6 phrases for each one, each topic. When sitting the exam and writing brief plans for the questions I had chosen I found by concentrating on the appropriate phrases I could almost reverse the revision process and remember the entire content of the corresponding lecture. Thinking of the phrases helped me consciously access the original lecture notes which, given my revision had taken place over about two weeks, were not that far from the surface anyway.

Childhood experiences in my case are 60 years ago and I have very few equivalents of the phrases that in the exam that helped the near total recall of what the phrases linked to. Reconstructing childhood experiences on the basis of fragmentary memories 60 years later will inevitably be less reliable and require a deal more of imagination, speculation and creativity. None-the-less it seems to be working for me.

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