Books are a forest and it’s hard to see the trees, except the tall ones or the old ones. But when you enter the forest, it’s the new growth that emits the sunlight....

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Memory, eidetic memory, and fiction

Memory.  What is it?  Words or is it pictures?  I don’t know if people think about that unless they notice exactly what goes through their heads when they remember.   If a name is mentioned, does a picture of the person flash through the head?   Or a street named in the hometown.  Is it accompanied by a landscape?

Writers probably think about that more than other people.  Pictures in the head inspire a writer to transcribe them or create them.  I liked to describe interiors while I was impressed at the descriptions other writers did with faces.  That was often a struggle for me yet we see many faces in our lifetimes. 

When I began writing fiction, I read a book entitled Creative Visualization, a book written to empower its readers with visualizations that promoted relaxation and might create their futures.  Living in the city, I used to imagine a scene near a water wheel and walking between apple blossoms to meet a guide I called Z in the countryside.

Verner Moore White  from Wikipedia

Dr. Andrew Weil made a similar suggestion at his site.  His was based upon memory and the calling up of past places.

Young photo of Dr. Weil

Simple Steps to Reduce Your Stress: Imagery - from Dr. Weil's site
Using imagery to relax is a terrific way to reduce stress and work through those day-to-day challenges. It's simple, low-tech and effective: all you need is your imagination and a few minutes to yourself. Begin by closing your eyes and taking deep, measured breaths. Imagine that you are in beautiful surroundings - either someplace you have visited or someplace you conjure up from your imagination. Focus on bringing all the elements of the scene to life: the colors you see, the sounds you hear, the smells you detect. Bring the images into focus and try to "stay in" the scene for at least five minutes. Practice this exercise for a few minutes every day or use it whenever you're stressed.

Writing fiction, I often concentrated on a neighborhood or a place.  Somehow my present place was blinded out and the picture brought about a kind of escape.  It became a game.  I would remember the “little store” in my childhood neighborhood and the house of a friend beyond it.  The game was to see if I could recall the houses in-between them.  I could imagine myself walking along the sidewalk and sometimes I would see more, other times I would be in a gap.

John Gardner wrote that fiction, at its best, keeps the reader in a trance-like state.  He maintained that the writer could induce for themselves a trance.  The better the trance in writing, the less the reader would fall out of the story. 

I used to do an exercise from John Gardner’s book  On Becoming a Novelist.  This exercise done early in the morning usually erased the tensions about the coming day and brought me to the next page of my work-in-progress.

A simple method is to sit in a chair with comfortable arms – preferably in a fairly dark, quiet room -  your arms flat on the arms of the chair, and tell yourself with firm conviction  ( it will prove justified)  that although you will not move a muscle, your hand and forearm are going to rise.  Concentrate on not moving the arm, but without resisting whatever may begin to happen to that arm, and concentrate too, on the belief that the arm will rise.  You will soon begin to feel an odd lightness in the hand, and eventually, independent of conscious volition, the arm will lift.  Magic.  … In this light hypnotic trance, make to yourself positive (never negative) suggestions - from On Becoming a Novelist by John Gardner

I wondered if fiction writers had eidetic or photographic memories.  Here on the internet, I found some tests for that. 

This site has pictures that must be recalled as puzzle pieces.

Well, if these aren’t as interesting as computer games, such sessions are also designed to improve memory.

I took the tests and, although I did better on one than another, better with landscapes than with cartoon figures, I didn’t have what is termed an eidetic memory.  Eidetic memories are perfect, like a camera snapshot apparently, and there is controversy about whether the ability is valid.

“The vast majority of the people who have been identified as possessing eidetic imagery are children._ - Scientific America   

Slate Magazine discusses eidetic memory:   “This seems like as good an opportunity as any to clear up the greatest enduring myth about human memory. Lots of people claim to have a photographic memory, but nobody actually does.”   Following this assertion were details about contested research.  

Yet there is a list of people claimed to have eidetic memory on Wikipedia.  Included are Adolph Hitler, Bill Clinton, Swami Vivekananda, Hans von Bulow, Nicola Tesla, Abbie Hoffman, Mozart, Theodore Roosevelt, and one author, Ray Bradbury.

I would think more authors would be cited only because it seems many have proof of photographic memories.  But the point is, memory is selective.  If writers and other people have memories that are in pictures, they are probably likely to remember what they want to remember.  So the pictures are there but with memory gaps.  Perhaps that stimulates the creative energies.  The memory provides a real backdrop or template and then the creative picture is one that becomes filled in with this stuff called fiction. 

People wonder how writers get started.  I usually state that I began writing about a subject when it was gone.  My first essays, taped to our kitchen wall, were about a cat that ran away and about a yard plum tree that was scorched and destroyed by lightening.  They were gone but the pictures of them weren’t.  The cat and plum tree became writing material.

Creative energy is mysterious and still a subject of inquiry and research.  Probably because it is an individual experience and differs from one person to the next.  When I was a newspaper reporter in a St. Paul suburb, I interviewed a playwright of historical plays, Lance Belville.  I asked him how he wrote his plays and he said he didn’t really know.  When they were finished, he had trouble recalling how exactly they were constructed. 

That was puzzling before I wrote long fiction.  But a few years after writing a manuscript, I would have trouble remembering how the story congealed.  What do I remember?  I remember moments at the typewriter, the typewriter or computer itself, what was in that setting, and events in my life at the time.  But I have trouble recalling how I arrived at the story plot.  Are authors in a kind of trance or do they go about things in a more orderly way?

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