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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