The Value of Pointless Memories

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. 


Jamie said...

It's a lovely passage (although not one that has any similarity with my own life!), but I feel like that style can get a bit overwhelming after a while. It becomes too reliant on the reader at least having some sort of memory they can connect it to, whereas in short bursts - as above - that's not necessary at all.

seoirse mac enri said...

Nice one Ken,I'm sure ye took the 'safeway' to Donegal.I agree with you memories are of great value to us.I think they show us how we've changed , for better or worse in that time span what did we value then as we do now? memories to me are based on friendships and sharing good times,sometimes the nastier person i could be and how age time and experience has made me so much more mellow.Memories are like on demand tv they're always available and when we share them with others we evoke even more .Thanks Ken

Jim Murdoch said...

The first thing I did with your memory was to replace it with one of my own and by the time I'd got to the end that short paragraph I had almost lost touch with what I was reading. I was with George in the van listening to Meddle by Pink Floyd up loud. It was Christmastime and he had a job delivering something—can't remember what (milk's the most obvious choice but it doesn't feel right)—and this was him going round the houses collecting money and, of course, most people were sticking in a fiver 'bonus' as it was that time of year. The thing you have to remember about being a writer is that we have no control over what our readers bring to the text. For some that will be a boring incident but for others they will connect to it in ways you will never have imagined. It always puzzles me when people other than me make books their own as if the author really was only the bloke who typed up the text and that was it. I've only ever met one bloke who had the same affection for 'Mr. Bleaney' as me and I was so annoyed. It was my poem. How dare he?

The second thing I wanted to do with that paragraph was expand it. There's a story waiting to be told and really all we have here is a setting and the dramatis personae. When asked if her own first novel was autobiographical Jeanette Winterson had this to say: "Yes and no. All writers draw on their experience but experience isn't what makes a good book. As the stand-up comics say, 'It's the way you tell 'em'. Oranges is written in the first person, it's direct and uninhibited, but it isn't autobiography in the real sense." You might think you were being honest and accurate when you wrote this but words are never, and never will be, up to the job of accurately communicating anything. All we ever are able to commit to paper is an outline for others to colour in.

For months now I've been struggling with what I keep telling myself will be my next book. I've never been a particularly autobiographical writer. Like everyone I borrow bits and pieces—Jonathan had meningitis and I had meningitis—but I've never told a story where my family and friends could come along and say, "See that character there, that's me isn't it?" Now, however, I can't shake the desire to write a fictionalised memoir. It has to be fictionalised because I simply cannot remember anything with any degree of accuracy. I'm actually shocked by the things I cannot remember and really that's what I keep coming back to. I have a line which I haven't found a home for yet but it's too good not to use: "I don't have much time for memoirists; people with their heads stuck up their own pasts." A part of me holds that to be true but without the past who are we? Then again, does it matter how we got here? We're here in the now and have to deal with that. It's why I don't care whether we were created or evolved. It might be interesting to find out but it doesn't change anything.

I'm with Auster when it comes to not giving two hoots what my potential readers might think. I think as soon as you start to imagine them then you're going to lose a degree of … I'm going to use the word 'honesty' here as opposed to factual accuracy or truthfulness. I am my ideal reader and I have to believe that there are others out there who will either see things my way or bring something to the table to make the piece work for them. I suppose being a poet first and foremost has been a help because as far as I'm concerned words only suggest meanings: nothing is written in stone. Apart from the Ten Commandments, allegedly.

shinester said...

I really like this one Ken. I was musing over something along those lines just the other day when a memory led me to a folder, long forgotten, in a filing cabinet in the office. In my early to mid twenties, circa 25 years ago - I went through a "phase" of writing stuff (poems, song lyrics (?)) - I'm not a singer or a musician though. All of these things, deeply personal memories and comments on a fairly hectic time of my life - over a three year period. Well, the other day, I was looking at the Banksy image of the sky and child in the wall in Israel, you know the one, right? I had written one poem, that I was rather proud of, at the time about an eleven month stay (by accident - long story) in the Golan Heights and the Negev Desert. Not sure what came over me but I posted it alongside that Banksy image on FB and got an interestingly good response, so suddenly the memory and my poem was public property and surprisingly, it didn't bother me. It only took from 1983 to now for me to feel free to do so - apparently....
Oh, and something else, reading your post I was reminded of the David Essex lyric from the song Streetfight, Rock On album 1973 :O "I was lookin' back to see if you were lookin' back at me to see me lookin' back at you". Up to this week, I think the only person who ever saw anyhing I wrote was my other half and that was for about 30 seconds max 18 years ago - ooh the memories!

auntyamo said...

I always worry that what I write will only interest anyone who knows me or wants to know me.
I have so many inceidental stories that I'd love to tell but they don't make the cut cos they don't really mean anything.
Have great plans to turn them into spruced up versions and add them to the 'fiction' blog
Maybe I should write them first.. and then decide. :)

Unknown said...

Memories are our own personal mile markers that tell us exactly how far down the road of life we have travelled. Not every tale has to be funny, entertaining or even have a point. Memories are there for us to glean the details of our past in the wee small hours. Without memories we are dust.

Unknown said...

Great times ken a simple day that stays in our minds. The memories might not mean much to others but the fact that we can remember them it they must mean something.

Marian (Bree) O'Reilly said...

The Smokers Own was my late uncle Dinnys shop! Love the random connections that spark more memories!

Ken Armstrong said...

Thanks Jamie. That's the conundrum - to work the memory to make it fit all or leave it alone to perhaps only fit one. It depends on the memory, I think.

Hi G :) You have the 'inside scoop' as ever.

Jim: I like this, "You might think you were being honest and accurate when you wrote this..." I actually wondered how much even this simply memory has been subconsciously 'worked up'. Quite a lot, I think.

Shinester: Thanks for sharing the piece you referred to with me.

Unknown: Write them first and then decide. Definitely. :)

Chef Files: Nicely put.

Unknown: That's the truth. Thanks for dropping by. :)

Marian: I didn't know that or had forgotten most likely. That makes the memory every more worthwhile. Thanks. x