Monday, December 12, 2011

The Link Between Memory and Imagination

My mind used to be a steel trap. I could remember details of past events that left other people standing slack-jawed. But about six years ago, I wrecked an ATV, cracked my skull against a fence post, and—whammy!—my steel trap rusted shut. Nowadays, my memory seems to have a mind of its own, coming and going. Mostly going. If you and I have an important meeting at three, I better write it down, or you’ll be waiting at the cafĂ©, wondering why I stood you up. At first glance, this is kinda sad. In a sense, life is memory. But, after another glance, there are actually some interesting benefits in the organic, ever-changing relationship between memory (or the lack thereof) and the writer’s best tool in trade: his imagination.

Memory and imagination are inherently linked: everything we build in our imagination is the product of the raw materials supplied to us by our previous life experience—i.e., our memory. Because all of our memories are faulty, to one degree or another, empty spaces open up in our minds, which our imaginations can then take advantage of and fill. In his article “Let your imagination play” (The Writer, February 2011), Bob Blaisdell expounds on South American author Jorge Luis Borges’ thoughts on memory and imagination:
Image by peet-astn

When our everyday memory dissolves, as it will, it leaves a blank canvas for us to fill with imagination. “Although reality is exact,” Borges reflected, “memory is not.” … Compared to an inability to imagine, the tangible effects of imagining (producing artwork, books, music) are scarcely important. We can imagine, whatever our artistic limitations…. To think is to forget a difference, to generalize, to abstract.
In a sense, authors have to forget in order to imagine. As Polish literary critic and Pulitzer nominee Francine du Plessix Gray puts it:

Purify your mind of toxins of memory. … Writers have to have this kind of digestive process for the psyche.
If we’re writing strictly from memory—whether that be in the construction of fact-based non-fiction, or the reconstruction of real-life settings for our novels—we’re not imagining. We’re not creating. We’re just recording. Nothing wrong with this, of course. The facts are the vital ingredient in convincing readers to suspend their disbelief. But few of us will argue that the true joy of writing comes in the raw, primal act of creation. When we forget the facts, deliberately or not, a vast, unpainted plane opens up in front of us, like an artist’s blank canvas, just begging to be filled with wild splashes and combinations of color.

So, although my wonky memory forces me to buy day planners and filing systems and expend extra energy on research and fact checking, I’m thankful for the opportunity to be released from the confines of memory’s exactitude—if only for those hours of beautiful, unchained creativity while I sit at my desk creating new realities.
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  1. Great post. I have a selective photographic memory, usually associated with dates and places, moreso than people and events. I can remember who ran for what office in which year, but ask me to remember a fight between family members in the same time period, I'm lost. :)

    I think it's important to forget what you've written, most certainly in the editing process. I put my NaNo aside for over a year, and when I went back to it, I was pleasantly surprised by some of it. Appalled by other parts of it, but more pleased than not. It also allowed me to see the areas that need expanding and improvement more easily than if I'd put it aside for just a week or two.

  2. Good point. The more we can forget what we've written, the more objective we can be in the editing phase.

  3. Great, well written post. I used to have a good memory for dates—I still remember the birthdays of people I haven't seen since high school—but today, I feel fortunate if I remember to bring my lunch. ;) Glad to know I can fill the empty space with imagination. Just don't blame me if I remember the day we went ice fishing for purple crocodiles. ;) :p

  4. I used to be really good with dates, but nowadays numbers of any sort just make me go cross-eyed. Thank heavens for calculators!

  5. I think this explains why I took up fiction later in life. I have a hard time keeping my mind focused on reality and when I'm writing I can let it run wild. I might forget to do anything else, but I've got a great story down on paper, so it's worth it.
    Thanks for a great post.

  6. Forgetting about the real world when writing is a memory malady common to all writers! You know what they say about time flying...

  7. Love this, Katie. My memory is lousy, and my self-discipline to use reminders is non-existent. I am the worst at remembering to write things down. At least in the art of creating, that's a good thing.

  8. Come to think of it, this whole memory-lapse thing may be one of the reasons I like outlines so well! Otherwise, I'm apt to forget my plot before I actually get it written. :p

  9. I've always had memory problems.. maybe due to a severe head injury I got as a child.
    It's nice to be reminded that I need to write stuff down.. so I can remember it.
    Great article, by the way.

  10. So many of us suffer from memory problems - for one reason or another. It's nice to know we're all rowing in the same boat!