Notes on writing a memoir

Over the past year or so, I have fallen into a daily remembrance-thinking mindset like never before in my life. At times, it feels very strange and awkward to suddenly think of something that happened years, even decades, ago. These memories come without warning and without any logical explanation. They simply arrive in semi-vivid picture frames in my thoughts. I don’t know what to do about them other than write about them. I suppose this kind of thinking is common. Don’t many of us focus on the rear-view mirror too much? In any event, what I refer to as frequent remembrance-thinking can become self-annoying. I confess that I do not know what to make of it.

I thought I was losing my sanity, until I read a chapter titled “Memory: Short-Term Loss, Long-Term Gain” in James Hillman’s book “The Force of Character: And the Lasting Life,” where he describes the late aging process as a period of intense life review coupled with intense imagination. Essentially, as the title of the chapter implies, we may feel ourselves forgetting where our keys are more often, but, at the same time, our deeper memories become just that: deeper and more meaningful in our present mind.

As Hillman noted:

The inability to recall this morning’s conversation, let alone last week’s visitors, keeps the shelves open for assembling the records so long stored. Geriatric psychology finds that older people spend more and more time taking stock, doing their life review. . . The in-gathering of old images to the exclusion of recent events seems imposed on the aged, as if the soul insists on this review. As we age, something in us wants to return to distant halls and dusty mirrors. I think character wants to understand itself, increase its insight and intelligence.

I feel grateful to Hillman for confirming that my memory issues are not psychologically and even physiologically abnormal. To the contrary, they are contributing to more growth as I age. “On the one hand, brain cells may be flaking off like autumn leaves in a deciduous forest; on the other hand, a clearing is being made, leaving more space for occasional birds to alight,” Hillman wrote in his typically eloquent flare.

In an essay titled “The Story of a Novel,” Thomas Wolfe, who influenced my growth as a writer, and, in my opinion, is one of the greatest autobiographical fiction writers of all time, presented an elaborate sketch about his powerful, unable-to-stop, writing habits. The quality of his memory, he explained, was characterized “in more than ordinary degree by the intensity of sense, impressions, its power to evoke and bring back the odors, sounds, colors, shapes, and feel of things with concrete vividness.”  My memory does not bring back such vividness as the marvelous Thomas Wolfe, but my memory is vivid in other ways.

In that same essay, Wolfe wrote,

“All serious creative work must be at bottom autobiographical, and that a man must use the material and experience of his own life if he is to create anything that has substantial value.”

Wolfe often wrote under the subject line of “Where now?” He submitted more than 1 million words to his editor Max Perkins (who was also editor for F. Scott Fitzgerald and Earnest Hemingway) for his second novel “Of Time and the River.” Wolfe wrote about, “those thousands of things which all of us have seen for just a flash, just a moment in our lives, which seem to be of no consequence whatever at the moment that we see them, and which live in our minds and hearts forever, which are somehow pregnant with all the joy and sorrow of the human destiny, and which we know, somehow, are therefore more important than many things of more apparent consequences. Where now?”

So, I carry on.

2 comments

  1. Thoughtful take on memory, George. I quite like the idea of the aging process as “a period of intense life review coupled with intense imagination.”

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