I was driving back from a thing last Monday evening and Paul Auster was on the radio being interviewed. His interview got me thinking, mostly about memories and how I deal with the act of recounting them.
I really like Paul Auster. I can’t pretend to have read a huge amount of his work but I loved his ‘New York Trilogy’. Its studied oddity has stayed with me in a much stronger way than many other books. I intend to read more soon.
In interview, he was much less obtuse than I feared he might be. As with many great writers, his ‘real voice’ is not his ‘writer’s voice’.
(I think I’m the opposite, this is pretty much my real voice so, you know... deal with it).
Paul was discussing his newest book which is called ‘Winter Journal’. It is apparently a memoir which is more a history of the writer’s body rather than of his mind. That sounds very interesting and it is the aspect of the book that most reviewers seem to have latched onto. I was more interested in an entirely different aspect though and the discussion which I heard about it.
As Auster recounts his memories, he says he feels a desire or even an obligation to tell them as honestly as he can. He strives to ‘tell it as it was’ almost regardless of how this is received by the reader. I thought this was a very interesting idea. Mostly because it is something I have never-ever done.
I am a storyteller by nature, really, and not too bad of a one either. I can take a series of elements and relate them in a way which is presentable and mildly diverting, perhaps even funny sometimes. I like doing it and people seem to like it when I do it. So all is well.
But what does this do to my memories, this narrative-driven reworking of my life? I was driving along, as I said, and Auster was finished being interviewed so I had some time to think about this. I came up with two ways in which my instinct to tell engaging stories impacts on my actual memories.
Firstly, to evoke Larkin a little , it fucks them up. Well, it has to, doesn’t it? My memories don’t come neatly packaged in anecdote-sized chunks. In order to tell them in an entertaining way, they have to be altered. They get diluted, cut, enlarged, saddened-down, happied-up… they get made bite-sized and palatable. The more I tell the reworked tale, the more it becomes the truth of the matter. Story wins and Memory loses.
Secondly, and perhaps more interestingly, many memories tend to get lost altogether. It transpires that the only memories I consciously cling-to are the ones that I can write or tell engagingly. These memories get mulled-over and revisited in the guise of story-perfecting and, perhaps inevitably, they come to define me to the people I tell them to. Those other memories, the scraps and interludes than cannot be entertainingly told, well they remain unaltered and true until they rust and wither in those unvisited attic sections of my mind.
Thank heavens, then, for the subconscious. Things can hide in there, untouched, until you go looking for them.
Paul Auster’s interview got me actively thinking about the memories I keep which are too uninteresting to tell to anyone else but which may be potential gold dust to me alone. He gave me a little key and, as I drove along, I used it. As I suspected, there’s lots of stuff in there that I wouldn’t ever be telling you (or myself) because there’s no actual point to any of it.
Or is there?
Am I wrong in thinking that a memory can only have value in the telling if it is fully complete and entertaining in itself? I don’t know. Here’s a memory, as honest as I can tell it. Don’t read it waiting for the punchline or the twist to come along. There isn’t one. Maybe I’m starting to learn that that’s okay.
Easter Saturday, 1980. A blindingly beautiful sunny day. My pal Sean calls round in his van and says he has to take a run to Gweedor in the neighbouring county of Donegal and did I want to come along for the ride? I did. On the way there, Sean told me that Donegal girls were special. If you passed one on the street, and looked back at her, you would most likely find that she was looking back at you too. On the way back we had the ocean down on our right hand side, the wide black tarmac road and Echo Beach by Martha and the Muffins on the radio. It felt, to me, like we could be in a movie with Warren Oates. I sang along with the radio. “It’s ‘Far away in time’”, said Sean, “not ‘Fall away in time’”. I remembered it was Easter Saturday and than I needed to get some kind of chocolate egg for Mum and Dad. There had been a nice one in the window of ‘The Smoker’s Own’ in Castle Street. I hoped it would be still there when we got back to Sligo and than I would have enough money for it…
To me, it's vivid and evocative and true. To you, it's probably nothing at all. So, if it's only of value to me then there's no point at all in my telling it, right? Well, I'm not so sure anymore. Who knows? Who knows where a little piece of somebody's undiluted truth might come in handy for something.
It's like putting on the indicator in your car when there's nobody else around... you don't really know there's nobody else around, you just can't see them.