Bert’s nose and the limits of memory
A few days ago, I was leafing through a Sesame Street coloring book with my daughter when I was hit by a startling realization: I couldn’t remember the color of Bert’s nose. I’ve watched Bert and Ernie for what has to be hundreds of hours—much of it in the last six months—and I know more about them than I do about most characters in novels. But for the life of me, I couldn’t remember what color Bert’s nose was, and I was on the point of looking up a picture in The Sesame Street Dictionary when it finally came to me. As I continued to page through the coloring book, though, I found that I had trouble recalling a lot of little details. Big Bird’s legs, for instance, are orange cylinders segmented by thin contour lines, but what color are those lines? What about Elmo’s nose? Or the stripes on Bert and Ernie’s shirts? In the end, I repeatedly found myself going online to check. And while the last thing I want is to set down rules for what crayons my daughter can and can’t use when coloring her favorite characters, as a writer, and particularly one for whom observation and accuracy of description have always been important, I was secretly chagrined.
They aren’t isolated cases, either. My memory, like everyone else’s, has areas of greater and lesser precision: I have an encyclopedic recall of movie release dates, but have trouble putting a name to a face until I’ve met a person a couple of times. Like most of us, I remember images as chunks of information, and when I try to drill down to recall particular details, I feel like Watson in his exchange with Holmes in “A Scandal in Bohemia”:
“For example, you have frequently seen the steps which lead up from the hall to this room.”
“Well, some hundreds of times.”
“Then how many are there?”
“How many? I don’t know.”
“Quite so! You have not observed. And yet you have seen. That is just my point. Now, I know that there are seventeen steps, because I have both seen and observed.”
And I find it somewhat peculiar—and I’m not alone here—that I was able to remember and locate this quote without any effort, while I still couldn’t tell you the number of steps that lead to the front porch of my own house.
Of course, none of this is particularly surprising, if we’ve thought at all about how our own memories work. A mental image is really more of an impression that disappears like a mirage as soon as we try to get any closer, and it’s particularly true of the objects we take most for granted. When we think of our own pasts, it’s the exceptional moments that we remember, while the details of everyday routine seem to evaporate without a trace: I recall all kinds of things about my trip to Peru, but I can barely remember what my average day was like before my daughter was born. This kind of selective amnesia is so common that it doesn’t even seem worth mentioning. But it raises a legitimate question of whether this represents a handicap for a writer, or even disqualifies us from doing interesting work. In a letter to the novelist James Jones, the editor Maxwell Perkins once wrote:
I remember reading somewhere what I thought was a very true statement to the effect that anybody could find out if he was a writer. If he were a writer, when he tried to write out of some particular day, he found that he could recall exactly how the light fell and how the temperature felt, and all the quality of it. Most people cannot do it. If they can do it, they may never be successful in a pecuniary sense, but that ability is at the bottom of writing, I am sure.
For those of us who probably wouldn’t notice if someone quietly switched our toothbrushes, as Faye Wong does to Tony Leung in Chungking Express, this may seem disheartening. But I’d like to believe that memory and observation can be cultivated, like any writing skill, or that we can at least learn how to compensate for our own weaknesses. Some writers, like Nabokov or Updike, were born as monsters of noticing, but for the rest of us, some combination of good notes, close attention to the techniques of the writers we admire, and the directed observation required to solve particular narrative problems can go a long way toward making up the difference. (I emphasize specific problems because it’s more useful, in the long run, to figure out how to describe something within the context of a story than to work on self-contained writing exercises.) Revision, too, can work wonders: a full page of description distilled to a short paragraph, leaving only its essentials, can feel wonderfully packed and evocative. Our memories are selective for a reason: if we remembered everything, we’d have trouble knowing what was important. It’s better, perhaps, to muddle through as best as we can, turning on that novelistic degree of perception only when it counts—or, more accurately, when our intuition tells us that it counts. And when it really matters, we can always go back and verify that Bert’s nose, in fact, is orange.