A few days ago, I was sitting in the sun and I couldn’t stop writing. I had cigarettes and a bottle of water, two camping chairs (one to keep my feet out of the ant-filled grass) and pen and the book. I wasn’t really writing, I was writing out a plan for what I should write next, and I know this means that it only sort-of counts as writing. What I want to write next has a basic form, of course characters. But there is a lot missing, which is why I am afraid to start. I don’t need an ultimate destination of course, but I need a direction to point myself in.
People ask me a lot what I am reading. I am glad that they ask, that they know I read a lot, that they are interested in my choices, that my choices may have some bearing on their own. But all I read are students’ papers, stories and poems I am teaching, notes I’m preparing, words I have written. My weeks are so full that I don’t have the time to make for books. My weeks are so full that I keep my weekends almost completely empty.
I tell my students that the creative process is really the spontaneous combination of things scattered all over your brain. A guy you saw in a train station three weeks ago, a story your grandma told you about her life thirty years ago, the way that jerk broke your heart, the song you hear on the way to class, it just all sort of magnetizes and somehow comes together.
I can’t find those things in my brain; I can’t get them to fit together. They are there, of course they are there, because they are things I have seen and felt and thought and imagined or whatever. Being an artist means knowing how to assemble them, how to arrange them, how to harmonize them.
My memory is holding these things hostage. Instead, it offers up to me things I won’t bring myself to write about, things I haven’t figured out, things that are dreary and boring. It is trying to artifically contruct a kind of melancholy for me by flooding my mind with things that happened six years ago, things that I have been over so many times that I have already robbed them of their creative potential. Essentially, my memory is boring me.
This is because my memory is a monster.
“Your memory is a monster; you forget – it doesn’t. It simply files things away. It keeps things for you, or hides things from you – and summons them to your recall with a will of its own. You think you have a memory; but it has you.” –John Irving
Now generally, when I read this line from A Prayer for Owen Meany, I think of my memory as a monster because it does something like this:
The song, the first notes of which summon a wave. You don’t choose which things to summon, so if it brings you flashes of kisses and your hand being held, glances and knowing laughs, you feel something sharp that you may even try to physically shake from your head. But it might be the stalled conversations, or that fatal conversation, the mistake you made that, when you made it, and every time you’re forced, by the monster, into recalling it, you look away. Then it’s different, it’s dull, it’s almost elucidating.
But now, today, I need these memories, personal or impersonal, things I’ve experience or simply been witness to, ideas I’ve thought of, stories I’ve heard, small details stored somewhere, and yes, fatal conversations, or at least the analysis conversation with someone else about that fatal conversation. I am seeking the wave, I need the flood, I want to be awash in things being summoned so rapidly that I have no choice but to write. And my memory holds them from me.
And the day I am not ready, the day I’ve had enough and I am not seeking out feelings from the past, but rather being innundated with stress in the present, this seemingly unshakable levee will break. And I will, once again, for yet another reason, call it a monster.