The art of memory

Do you remember your first kiss?

Of course you do. And you remember the truth about it too. Not the Hollywood-ised version that your fairytale brain would like you to believe, but the awkward reality (do you tilt your head to the left or to the right? Will your teeth clatter together? Will you be able to breathe?).

I’m assuming that your first kiss wasn’t last week, but that it was some years ago. And yet you can remember it reasonably well…

At the weekend, I went to see The Wonder Stuff in concert in Cardiff. Now, the Stuffies were pretty much the soundtrack to my A level years. If you saw me aged 16-18, chances are I would be wearing a big cardigan over a baggy t-shirt, drinking lots of tea, sneaking into pubs and listening to The Wonder Stuff. They rocked my world.

I’ve listened to them on and off since then and – maybe – seen them live before (but that might be memory thinking I must have done rather than the truth…). Anyway, Cardiff. Saturday night. They’re on stage. They play song after song. And I know 80% of the words. To songs I haven’t listened to in 20-something years.

What is my brain doing? Why is all this stuff still in there? Why can I remember the lyrics to obscure B-sides but not what I did last Wednesday? (I picked last Wednesday as a random day. Given a minute or two, I was able to piece together a picture of last Wednesday. The Wonder Stuff lyrics on Saturday came instantly.)

Science and psychology help to tell us how memory works. Our brains are wondrous things with the capacity to analyse and understand themselves – which is quite a spooky concept. Here’s a cute animation to help explain some of the science-y stuff:

But it’s the art of memory that intrigues me, at least from a writer’s perspective. What you remember, how that memory is triggered, the timing of that memory coming back to you – these are all fantastic things to think about when crafting a story. False memories, elaborations, your brain downright making things up – those are great fictional devices too.

If you haven’t read Elizabeth Is Missing by Emma Healey, then you really should – it’s an incredible study of what happens to us when memory starts to fail. It’s also a great illustration of our ability to remember the long-ago and far-away in quite some detail but to lose sight of the here and now and last week way too easily.

Our characters are built of their memories, but no-one can remember everything (OK, maybe this guy can). Our brains and our bodies conspire to hide some memories from us – often the most painful or the most intense. And they keep other things bubbling away in the mental mud for years until the bubbles pop through the surface – whether we want them to or not. For everything that our characters remember, there’s a ton of stuff that they will have forgotten. If you interlace multiple narrators, you can find several versions of the same story, and challenge the reader to find the truth within it (this concept has a name, it turns out: it’s the Rashomon effect).

So, explore memory, question it, challenge it. What do you remember? What do your characters remember? What about people quoted in news articles or testifying in court? How does memory change over time? How does it get reinforced? How do you draw on memory to confirm the things you believe? How much do you trust someone whose memory is just too perfect?

And explore the music of The Wonder Stuff too (or at least, go listen to the band you listened to most when you were a teenager – you’ll have a head full of lyrics before you know it!).




Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

Blog at

Up ↑

%d bloggers like this: