Whenever I begin to feel bad about the sorry state of my memory, I like to consider the Borges story “Funes the Memorious.” The titular character, Ireneo Funes, “suffers” from having an outlandishly excellent memory–so good he has to hide himself away in a dark room, so all the intricate detail of his own experience won’t haunt him forever.

In the story, Funes essentially loses the ability to understand abstraction and generalization, because he’s so mired in the particular. He becomes a kind of monster, inhuman. Truly, it’s a redeeming story for those of us with sieves for a mind. Memory can be a disability.

It is an interesting story because it’s a Borges story, of course, but it’s always been of particular interest to me because my memory has always been so terrible. I’ll often forget a certain word–even quite common words–or name, and in the process of trying to remember, forget even those word clusters around it that should be helping me remember. It’s as though my forgetfulness is a metastasizing tumor that feeds on my will to recall. The harder I try, the more I forget.

So, as anyone with any self-esteem would do, I’ve sought to find a silver lining, something about my forgetfulness that will save me from feeling like an absolute failure. My solution–whether reasonable or not–has been to associate forgetfulness with fiction. More specifically, to associate the capacity to forget, with the ability to create. Nice trick, huh? (Of course, as a teen, this impulse also resulted in a whole lot of lying, but that’s a different post.)

I wonder how many other fiction writers suffer from bad memories.

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SHYA SCANLON is the Fiction Reviews Editor for The Nervous Breakdown. Scanlon's work has appeared in the Mississippi Review, Literary Review, New York Quarterly, Guernica Magazine, Opium Magazine, and others. His book of prose poetry, In This Alone Impulse, was published by Noemi Press in January, 2010. In 2009, his novel Forecast was serialized online across 42 journals and literary blogs as part of the Forecast 42 Project. Forecast will be published by Flatmancrooked in December, 2010. He received his MFA from Brown University, where he was awarded the John Hawkes Prize in Fiction. Please visit him at www.shyascanlon.com.

17 responses to “Bad memory = good fiction?”

  1. My memory is atrocious.

    But then I’m not a very good fiction writer either…

    • Shya Scanlon says:

      Ha! Well, yes, I don’t suppose there’s any guarantee about it, is there. Otherwise, if you wanted to be a good writer, all you’d have to do is drink until you killed half your brain cells. On the other hand, it seems like a good many writers follow this exact prescription.

  2. Mary says:

    I tend to forget things like the name of a person I talk to every day, or the name of a city I once lived in, or what I was about to do just five seconds ago. This happens in stressful moments when there’s too much going on. But then, when my brain is relatively calm, I’m driving home from work or taking a bath or something, I’ll remember something terrible … some asinine thing I said in high school which I’m still feeling guilty about … Yeah, mostly I remember stories of guilt or embarrassment. It’s much less often that I randomly remember some beautiful moment, except for those moment that involve people I’m no longer close to, so it results in at least a vague feeling of guilt over having lost touch with that person or in the case of one nasty breakup, a feeling of haunting confusion that seems to say, “How can our relationship have been at once that BAD and that GOOD?”

    oh memories …

    • Shya Scanlon says:

      According to Neitzsche, the development of memory was tied initially to the ability to make promises–so guilt at having broken a promise was really one of the first emotions to result from this new type of consciousness. Obviously, it’s still going strong…

  3. JB says:

    This is a timely blog. I have a depressingly bad memory. Oh, my poor wife…

    Anyway, I just spent the morning constructing a chronology of my life. I went through each year and wrote down every important event I could remember. It was a remarkable, humbling exercise. I noticed a few themes that I’ve grazed on in my own fiction. Only a few. Moreover, I noticed a whole treasure trove of material that I’ve been repressing and avoiding writing about. Stuff I should’ve written about. Stuff I can write about.

    This seemingly innocent exercise permanently altered my current perspective of my life. It’s easy to say life is hard and you are small and insignificant, but until you see the fortunate and unfortunate events of your life–all the hopefulness, desperation, financial distress, and tiny victories–spread out on paper in anecdote you don’t really get it. At least, I haven’t been getting it lately.

    But I digress. i encourage anyone with a bad memory to transcribe the events of his/her life year by year. See what you come up with. See what you think.

    Happy 2010,
    JB

    • Shya Scanlon says:

      That is a fascinating exercise, JB. I like its potential to make trends visible, especially. I recently wrote what I’m calling a “semi-autobiographical” novel, many episodes of which were taken from my life in a very direct way. After my brother read it, he began pointing out how strange he found my decisions about what to include. I admit to having let my instincts guide me, for the most part, but after taking a step back, I could see what he meant: it’s not always the most obvious things that stand out in retrospect.

  4. Joe says:

    There’s been something written about memory after 30. I think it was in Life After God by Douglas Coupland. I think he said something like, since memories were tied to emotions, by the time people hit 30, they’d basically had all the emotions they were going to in life by that point, and so the memories weren’t as strong as when something happened with a certain emotion for the very first time, like say, when they were 14 and every event was seminal.

  5. I wouldn’t be able to retell the plot of my favorite book or movie with any precision. The only way important dates can be reconstructed is a plodding mental slog back from the present. Names disappear halfway out of people’s mouths on introduction; only steady and methodical repetition will make them linger…I don’t write fiction but a good thing about this failing for a painter is that each new canvas is a fresh start. Of course there’s much history that can’t be forgotten, but if the details are murky there’s just enough room to go on without being crushed by the past…

  6. Actually, I’ve been blessed.

    Recently, I caught up with a friend I hadn’t seen for about three years. We caught up, and I could remember the name of the guy she was dating three years back, the name of his friend that caused a ruckus, the band he played in, the instrument he played, where they holidayed together and why they liked it so much.

    I don’t have an eidetic memory or anything like that, I just seem to be able to draw out information when I need it.

    Jesus. I hope this hasn’t destroyed any hope I’ve got of a writing career.

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