Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Archive for May 4th, 2017

The book of laughter and forgetting

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In her autobiography, Agatha Christie makes a confession that might strike those of us who haven’t written more than sixty novels as rather strange:

Murder at the Vicarage was published in 1930, but I cannot remember where, when, or how I wrote it, why I came to write it, or even what suggested to me that I should select a new character—Miss Marple—to act as the sleuth in the story.

Christie says the same thing about a novel that followed two years later: “Peril at End House was another of my books which left so little impression on me that I cannot even remember writing it.” In On Writing, Stephen King makes a similar admission: “There’s one novel, Cujo, that I barely remember writing at all. I don’t say that with pride or shame, only with a vague sense of sorrow and loss. I like that book. I wish I could remember enjoying the good parts as I put them down on the page.” To be fair, Christie and King were monstrously prolific, and in both cases, there may have been other factors involved—Christie had suffered from a “fugue state” several years earlier in which she disappeared for ten days without explanation, while King was drinking heavily and using drugs. But even novelists with more mundane lifestyles have reported a similar kind of amnesia. On rereading her novel The Autograph Man, which she bought on an impulse at an airport, Zadie Smith recounts: “The book was genuinely strange to me; there were whole pages I didn’t recognize, didn’t remember writing.”

I find these testimonials oddly reassuring, because they tell me that I’m not alone. Recently, I realized that I couldn’t remember how I came up with one of the most important characters in the trilogy of novels that began with The Icon Thief. If I tried, I could probably reconstruct it, and I’ve even written a whole author’s commentary devoted to preserving this kind of information. But it’s still troubling. I’ve published only three novels, the most recent of which appeared less than four years ago, but I don’t think I could tell you much about them today. This is partially due to the fact that I don’t like reading my old work: in the essay that I quoted above, Smith refers to the “nausea” that overcomes her when she looks back at her books, as well as “a feeling of fraudulence,” and I think most authors can relate to that revulsion. Yet it doesn’t entirely account for how little I remember. In the moment, writing a novel feels unbelievably hard, and it consists of so many discrete choices that I’ve even used it as an argument in favor of the existence of free will—but afterward, it seems to evaporate completely. Which just means that it’s like everything else in life, except that it leaves a more tangible trace of itself behind. In his memoir Self-Consciousness, John Updike writes:

That we age and leave behind this litter of dead, unrecoverable selves is both unbearable and the commonest thing in the world—it happens to everybody…In the dark one truly feels that immense sliding, that turning of the vast earth into darkness and eternal cold, taking with it all the furniture and scenery, and the bright distractions and warm touches, of our lives.

Not only can’t I recall much about writing The Icon Thief, but when I look at pictures of my daughter as a baby, from just two or three years ago, I can barely seem to remember that, either. I’d laugh about it, but it also makes me very sad.

And I suspect that a lot of parents would report the same phenomenon. Part of this is because we tend to have children at an age when time already seems to pass more quickly, but there’s also something else involved. It’s generally agreed that forgetting plays an important role in memory. In a paper first published in 1970, the psychologist Robert A. Bjork argued that forgetting is a way of minimizing interference between old and new experiences:

When people voice complaints about their memory, they invariably assume that the problem is one of insufficient retention of information. In a very real sense, however, the problem may be at least partly a matter of insufficient or inefficient forgetting. If one views the human cognitive apparatus as an ongoing information-handling system, it is clear that some mechanism to update the system, to keep the system current, is crucial…The positive function of any such forgetting mechanism is to prevent information no longer needed from interfering with the handling of current information.

Bjork went on to provide an example that seems more resonant the more I think about it:

Consider the information processing task faced by the typical short-order cook. He must process one by one…a series of orders that have high interorder similarity. Once he is through with “scramble two, crisp bacon, and an English,” his later processing of similar but not identical orders can only suffer to the degree that he has not, in effect, discarded “scrambled two, crisp bacon, and an English.”

The crucial phrase here, I think, is “interorder similarity.” It’s the everyday things that we tend to forget first. I have trouble reconstructing my daily routine from earlier periods in my life, like what I ate for breakfast in my twenties, but exceptional events, like travel to foreign countries, remain relatively vivid. There’s nothing odd about the idea that unusual or striking memories would persist more strongly, but you could also turn that argument on its head: the days that were more or less the same as the ones that followed are more likely to be discarded because they interfere with surrounding information. This allows us to focus on the problems of each day without distraction, but over time, it can turn entire years into a blur. That’s certainly true of writing novels, in which the sameness of each day’s work allows for those rare moments in which inspiration takes place. (It’s noteworthy that both Christie and King were genre novelists who reworked the same conventions over the course of many books. You could also say the same thing about many “literary” authors like Updike, whose novels tend to blend together. And I’d be curious to know if a writer whose style and themes change radically between novels, like David Mitchell or Mark Helprin, would have a different perspective.) Writing a novel, like raising a baby, can also be unpleasant, and perhaps this selective amnesia is what fools us into trying it again. Smith writes of The Autograph Man: “Between that book and me there now exists a sort of blank truce, neither pleasant nor unpleasant.” Sometimes you have to make a similar kind of truce with the past to go on living, and forgetfulness is where it begins. As Hercule Poirot would say, it’s a matter of little grey cells, and we can’t expect to hold onto them forever.

Written by nevalalee

May 4, 2017 at 9:05 am

Quote of the Day

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No honest writer of history is obscure, as a rule, except through carelessness or ignorance—ignorance, it may be, of the art of writing, or of the subject he is writing about, or of the persons he is addressing, or of the words he is using, but, in any case, ignorance of something. But an honest writer of poetry or prophecy may be consciously obscure because a message, so to speak, has come into his mind in a certain form, and he feels this likely to prove the best form—ultimately, when his readers have thought about it.

Edwin Abbott Abbott, Johannine Grammar

Written by nevalalee

May 4, 2017 at 7:30 am

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