In Chapter 1, I made a distinction between memory and imagination to highlight how certain events, images, scenes, become intensified, recalled in vividness, remembered whilst others subside into the unconscious mass of fragments it seems we have no use for. But if only it were that simple. The mind is not a filing system from which we can draw out an item of memory as fresh as the moment it was placed there. The system will have continued to absorb the item, digesting it, modifying it, and infecting it with numbers of other items. Storage is never pure or just automatic, a matter of canisters sealed with liquid ice; neither is memory retrieval pure.
It might help to think of memory as a function of the mind, not just an attribute or amusing side-issue, something to indulge in during long holiday weekends, looking at photographs, watching family videos. Its purpose could be considerably more dynamic. A peculiar, though common, feature of parenthood, for example, is the way adults focus on their children as they are and forget what they were like the previous year or the year before that. The protection and well-being of small children probably depends on this parental amnesia. The child as it is, in the present, encountering new dangers, learning new skills, demands every minute of our protective attention. Then, as children grow and become more reliably independent, parents stop forgetting and once more begin remembering. They tell you stories about yourself as a very small boy or girl—sometimes to your embarrassment. They start remembering to help build—possibly to challenge and therefore strengthen—your nascent identity. Like a growing community or a nation you need story, history, mythic traces, moments that stand out. You need images placed in a line of ascent to where you are now. In later life, when you pass through other changes, you might need these images or you might not. You might have to discard them, find others. It might be the present you need to concentrate on so, like your parents when you were small and vulnerable, you too enter a period of forgetting. Then, when that's over, memory might recharge itself again, enabling you to map the change and strengthen your new state. The point is that memory is a response reaction with a purpose—not just a store to be raided at will or ignored. The genuine task in memoir writing will be to understand your memory and work with it, and this means being honest about what you can and can't remember.
In the passage below, printed in full, Margaret Atwood decides that what she can't remember needed a whole paragraph.
When I was five my brother and I made poison. We were living in a city then, but we probably would have made the poison anyway. We kept it in a paint can under somebody else's house and we put all the poisonous things into it that we could think of: toad-stools, dead mice, mountain ash berries which may not have been poisonous but looked it, piss which we saved up in order to add it to the paint can. By the time the can was full everything in it was poisonous.
The problem was that once having made the poison we couldn't just leave it there. We had to do something with it We didn't want to put it into anyone's food, but we wanted an object, a completion. There was no one we hated enough, that was the difficulty.
I can't remember what we did with the poison in the end. Did we leave it under the corner of the house, which was made of wood and brownish yellow? Did we throw it at someone, some innocuous child? We wouldn't have dared an adult. Is this a true image I have, a small face streaming with tears and red berries, the sudden knowledge that the poison was really poisonous after all? Or did we throw it out, do I remember those red berries floating down a gutter; into a culvert, am I innocent?
Why did we make the poison in the first place? I can remember the glee with which we stirred and added, the sense of magic and accomplishment. Making poison is as much fun as making a cake. People like to make poison. If you don't understand this you will never understand anything.
This little story isn't something Atwood would have been told about by her parents. She is recalling all this by herself Why this memory and not others? Perhaps this is her first encounter with magic—the power to rearrange the world so that you potentially control it—yet rather than weighted with explanations, the passage creates images we can share. She adopts a tone of tacit understanding towards her readers.
Her manner of enacting implies sharing, but with other children or with adults who vividly remember what childhood was like. This was extravagant, this was story, making the world strange, yet notice how simple the language is, straightforward, building the scene, repeating the words 'poison.poisonous', asking direct questions she can't answer. Why is she recalling this memory? Does it have something to do with writing, being a writer? She doesn't say, yet we can feel its rhythm belongs to her present-day grown-up life. It has that intelligent, vivid force. This memory must have become necessary, also perhaps necessarily incomplete. What about her last two sentences? She hands the statement over to her readers—make of this what you will!
What we are told about ourselves, and what we remember, can merge together so that we can't distinguish the two. Doris Lessing makes this point at the start of the first volume of her autobiography, Under My Skin:
We make up our pasts. You can actually watch your mind doing it, taking a little fragment of fact and then spinning a tale out of it. No, I do not think this is only the fault of storytellers. A parent says, 'We took you to the seaside, and you built a sandcastle, don't you remember?—Look, here is the photo.' And at once the child builds from the words and the photograph a memory, which becomes hers. But there are moments, incidents, real memory, I do trust. This is partly because I spent a good deal of my childhood 'fixing' moments in my mind. Clearly, I had to fight to establish a reality of my own, against the insistence from the adults that I should accept theirs.
Lessing's need to work on her memory, to fix moments, suggests her active participation in the dynamic of memory, a deliberate engagement with its processes. Sometimes like Lessing we are able to say, That was not just a memory but a signal; it showed the direction in which things were moving, only now I can see it'. It requires an effort to see and feel the underlying currents and shapes of time, and the recalled events she puts into her autobiography will be precisely those memories that indicate and detect a flow, measure a direction:
The vividest early memory was—not the actual birth of my brother—but my introduction to the baby. I was two-and-a-half years old. The enormous room, lamplit, the ceiling shadowed and far above; the enormous bed, level with my head, on which my father lay, for he was ill again.. 'It is your baby, Doris, and you must love it.' The baby I do not remember. I was in a flame of rage and resentment. It was not my baby. It was their baby. But I can hear now that persuasive lying voice.
All you need is love. Love is all you need. A child should be governed by love, as my mother so often said, explaining her methods to us. She had not known love as a child, and was making sure we would not be similarly deprived. The trouble is, love is a word that has to be filled with the experience of love. What I remember is hard bundling hands, impatient arms and her voice telling me over and over again that she had not wanted a girl, she wanted a boy. I knew from the beginning she loved my little brother unconditionally, and she did not love me.
To get back to the underlying drives of this memory, she has to re-inhabit it, climb right back into its skin. There are impressions; of what? Was this the moment when Lessing's lifetime resentment of her brother first took hold? She conceived no such resentment towards him. The real point of this memory, how it fits into her future development, is its sense of anger towards authority—especially towards authority figures (in this case her mother) who use words empty of actual experience, 'persuasive.lying', on and on, a hollowness she palpably detects. This mother's voice is the key—words and speech— more than the 'enormous room, lamplit'. As soon as memory reveals that voice, she hears it. From then on it starts to absorb almost all her attention. Lessing's aim in writing is not simply to evoke the moment but to go behind and beneath the memory, to relive its pressure in her mind, decode its signal.
Like Atwood's 'Making Poison', many passages in Lessing's autobiography Under My Skin reveal story-like experiences in her childhood. Memory has an attraction to such episodes. After the family's emigration to Africa, there was that secret region; the bush, close enough to the house to escape into: 'The bush was not then the domesticated bush it has become. It was full of dangerous noises, owls and nightjars, the crashing leaps of a disturbed buck, but above all, mysterious presences from our fairy-tales, released from the pages of books, and at large there all around us' (Lessing, 1995:107) Running away there with her brother one night, the bush became Lessing's experience of story-world. Such places frequent the pages of memoirs and autobiographical fictions, especially when set in the writer's childhood. In one of her earliest stories, 'The Old Chief Mslangha' (Lessing, 2003:13-25), she evokes the African bush as a place with its own narratives— those that belonged to the people indigenous to that world. She came to know and appreciate Africa as a child growing up—a child with only English and northern European fairy-tales informing her experience of landscape. Her change of country was a change of story world.
The life story of the gifted singer and actress Marianne Faithfull reminds us that one life can contain several episodes, in her case violently contrasting. Here's how her autobiography, Faithfull, begins:
My earliest memory is a dream about my mother covered in armour, a coronet of snakes entwined around her head. I am three years old. I'm in my bed, in the little room with blue curtains. In the dream it is daytime, and sunlight is streaming through the curtains. Everything is blue, the blue of Ahmed's hashish and jewellery shop in Tangier Blue curtains blowing in the wind. And beyond them a garden. The green green green of an English lawn. I hear a voice calling me, 'Come, Marianne, come.' I feel helpless. I have no choice.
'Marianne! Marianne! the voice calls again, so piercingly this time that I get out of bed. I float to the window the way Alice does, with her feet just off the ground. I open the curtains and fly down to the end of the garden, where my mother has planted an asparagus patch. I see a fantastic figure looming over me. It is my mother-as-goddess, wearing armlets, breastplates and greaves like the ancient warrior-queen Boadiccea. She is cooking, raking the coals with a pair of tongs. She lifts me in her arms and places me on the fire. The dream ends as I lie down and allow her to roast me on the grill.
This happens night after night; again and again she arranges me on those hot coals. The dream always stops at that point. There is no pain, not really a nightmare at all, but rather a ritual that I obscurely recognise. A very Middle-European apparition—a proper, collective-consciousness dream about the mother; the goddess. Some form of training perhaps. It certainly prepared me for later life!
(Faithfull, 1994: I)
We don't need to know anything about the writer to sense the impact of this opening passage. Anyone could have written it. We don't need to know about her involvement with the Stones, Mick Jagger, drugs, or what her hit records in the 1960s were, or even how appropriate a beginning this is for a very bizarre and fascinating story. The passage is bizarre and fascinating in itself. The first sentence holds and provokes interest. A profoundly significant stereotype: the caring mother whose voice calls out our name so we come running and are lifted into her arms, has been altered into its opposite. The mother here is a female warrior of terrifying strength and size. If mothers traditionally provide food for their children and call them when it's ready, here is a child placed on a grill and cooked. The tone of almost hallucinatory extravagance changes what might be threatening and ominous to something quite comic, but not entirely so. The fact that we are reading a memoir must influence the questions this opening invites: Does the child accept her unusual treatment? Did her mother resemble this monstrous apparition in any way? If this is a test, will Marianne finally pass it and survive? What does it signify?
Note, too, the presence of exact reference: 'the blue of Ahmed's hashish and jewellery shop in Tangier.. Alice .with her feet just off the ground.. the end of the garden, where my mother has planted an asparagus patch.' Once again, details endorse the claim of authentication, the feel of a world uniquely real to the writer; a lesser degree of exactness would simply mean less familiarity between writer and world. Without that sharp focus and personal knowledge writers are less convincing, and readers less convinced.
In the next passage, from 'Ocean 1212-W', the poet Sylvia Plath revisits the scene of her early childhood by the sea in North America. The memory itself and the style of language—textured, poetic, expressive—are both equally important to the impact she is creating. The territory here is well known to her, a physical place, but her sense of it is not just recalled but revived by the act of remembering. More and more comes back to her as she writes, but the focus stays firmly on the sea which appears like a living thing in a range of shapes.
My childhood landscape was not the land but the end of the land—the cold, salt, running hills of the Atlantic. I sometimes think my vision of the sea is the clearest thing I own. I pick it up, exile that I am, like the purple 'lucky stones' I used to collect with a white ring all the way round, or the shell of a blue mussel with its rainbowy angel's fingernail interior; and in one wash of memory the colors deepen and gleam, the early world draws breath.
Sylvia Plath writes with anticipation and excitement. She has given herself complete permission to re-enter that world of her ocean childhood. She brings it to life: all of it. What will she discover? The sea is strange and obscure to her; alive, beautiful, dangerous. Her writing has touched that ambivalence of response, without loss of childlike curiosity:
For a time I believed not in God nor Santa Claus, but in mermaids. They seemed as logical and possible to me as the brittle twig of a seahorse in the Zoo aquarium or the skates lugged up on the lines of cursing Sunday fishermen—skates the shape of old pillowslips with the full, coy lips of women.
And I recall my mother, a sea-girl herself, reading to me and my brother.from Matthew Arnold's 'Forsaken Merman': Sand-strewn caverns, cool and deep,
Where the winds are all asleep; Where the spent lights quiver and gleam; Where the salt weed sways in the stream; Where the sea-beasts rang'd all around Feed in the ooze of their pasture-ground; Where the sea-snakes coil and twine Dry their mail and bask in the brine; Where great whales come sailing by, Sail and sail with unshut eye, Round the world forever and aye.
I saw the gooseflesh on my skin. I did not know what made it. I was not cold. Had a ghost passed over? No, it was the poetry. A spark flew off Arnold and shook me, like a chill. I wanted to cry; I felt very odd. I had fallen into a new way of being happy.
But would the sights and sounds of the sea, of any sea, anywhere, automatically produce the reactions she felt as a child? Her answer is no. It had to be that place on the Atlantic coast of North America: the sea by her grandmother s house. Living in England, 'in exile', she would be taken to the sea regularly as a cure for her nostalgia, but the cure never quite worked:
The road I knew curved into the waves with the ocean on one side, the bay on the other; and my grandmother's house, halfway out, faced east, full of red sun and sea lights.
To this day I remember her phone number: OCEAN 1212-W. I would repeat it to the operator from my home on the quieter bayside, an incantation, a fine rhythm, half expecting the black earpiece to give me back, like a conch, the susurrus of the sea out there as well as my grandmother's Hello.
Only through writing could she revisit that atmosphere:
The breath of the sea then. And then its lights. Was it some huge, radiant animal? Even with my eyes shut I could feel the glimmers off its bright mirrors spider over my lids. I lay in a watery cradle and sea gleams found the chinks in the dark green window blind, playing and dancing, or resting and trembling a little. At naptime I chinked my fingernail on the hollow brass bedstead for the music of it and once, in a fit of discovery and surprise, found the join in the new rose paper and with the same curious nail bared a great bald space of wall. I got scolded for this, spanked, too, and then my grandfather extracted me from the domestic furies for a long beachcombing stroll over mountains of rattling and cranking purple stones.
In this last sentence, Sylvia Plath could easily have written 'then he took me for a long walk on the beach'. But the word 'walk' becomes 'a long beachcombing stroll'—so much more accurate—and the beach becomes 'mountains of rattling and cranking purple stones'. This refusal of the obvious, simple name for a thing, and instead revisiting the original sensations is what we see most frequently in poetry. Much of these passages by Plath reads like an artist's notebook; largely she is beachcombing for poems, trying out special images, connections, sounds, letting her mind drift where it wants to go.
One other thing to notice in these ocean passages: sensations, textures, colours and sounds have immediate meaning-quality and feed the writer's poetic, imaginative vision. Texture, colour (a shell's 'rainbowy angel's fingernail interior') merge, as a single substance; meaning clings to every shape and space (even a telephone number) because of its proximity to the sea.
But it isn't the sea anywhere. The drive of the writing is not to give us back what we already know, but to show us how meanings collect and store themselves and to show ways of raiding that store. Because of this, the place must be felt as wholly unique to the writer; it relates to no one but her; she to nowhere but exactly that positioning of the coast.
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