About 4 years ago, I responded to a meme (remember when everyone did those!) that was based on an exercise by the writer Natalie Goldberg. The exercise is to try to think of things you can’t remember. Maybe it’s an event, or specific details – it doesn’t matter. I remember thinking how strange it was to recall something you couldn’t remember, but I was fascinated by how the memories slipped and slid through my brain, like an eel in water. I reread that blog from 2008 and decided it was time to revisit this activity. I won’t “tag” anyone to do it, but if you should find it appealing, I’d love to hear or read what you discovered.
1. I don’t remember most of the stay in the hospital when I had e-coli. Certainly a sizeable portion of this has been blocked because it was a pretty traumatic memory, but you’d think I could recall how long I stayed (I know it was more than 24 hours, but I don’t remember when they let me go home), or maybe if I had visitors (I know my husband was in and out, but I don’t remember anyone else).
2. I don’t remember most of my first trip to Disneyland. I was 9 – certainly old enough to record memories in detail of the “happiest place on earth” – but other than the “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea” submarine (which I think is gone now), and the Pirates of the Caribbean ride, I don’t remember anything about the visit.
3. I don’t remember the sound of my Aunt Mary’s voice. She was sister to my dad’s mother. Though she was an older woman, she must have had some type of developmental disability which back in the 1920s they didn’t have any diagnosis for other than “slow.” She didn’t speak much, but she did speak with a southern drawl and slow pace, as though each word were gold she was reluctant to spend. I have no memory of how she sounded, though, and because voice is so much a part of character, I feel I’ve lost a great deal of who she was.
4. I don’t remember the first dog I owned. We didn’t own her long. She was a puppy, some sort of Spanial mix, although I don’t recall her coloring or how she looked. We had only owned her a few months when she escaped the house and was hit by a car in which I was passenger. I remember the trauma of that, the frightened, pain-filled yelp she let out. But a kind neighbor retrieved her before we could see what had happened, and her image is lost to me.
6. I don’t remember the smell of my grandmother’s perfume. I remember her spritzing it on before church on sunday morning, her navy blue poly-blend dress covered in it. The muted smell of cigarette smoke caught in its fibers and blended with the cologne, but the scent that she sprayed from the pretty glass bottle doesn’t exist in my memory banks anymore.
7. I don’t remember the true name of the wonderful tropical fruit I ate on the island of St. Kitts. They called is “sour sot” or something similar. I recall the outside of the fruit being lumpy, but not what color it was. The inside was pale, like a banana. It was fleshy, and it tasted like a banana crossed with a mild citrus.
8. I don’t remember the name of the youth hostel I stayed in when I was in England. I remember it being cramped, and hot, and filled with people from all over the world with whom I drank warm pints at the pub next door. I’ve looked for it, but either it no longer exists, or even having seen the name, I can’t recall what it is.
9. I don’t remember 90% of my undergraduate instructors. The 10% I do remember were completely amazing, and a few of them I am still in contact with.
10. I don’t remember the first time I went skiing. Put this under the traumatic experiences header, but by the time I got home I swore I’d never go again – and yet I did. I still dislike skiing – I suck. I’m afraid of falling and I’ll do anything I can not to.
So as a writer, what does this mean? I think sometimes we want to include absolutely every sensory detail we can, but the truth is, there are moments in which most – if not all – of those pieces of information are unimportant or are lost. Sometimes we don’t need a character to remember the finite detail, because most human beings wouldn’t be able to do that. We all have these holes in the axons and dendrites that create our memories inside our brains (unless you’re some kind of savant with total recall).
The experts say that smell is most directly tied to memory, yet even that doesn’t always hold true. Approach characters and their memories realistically. One of the most important concepts I ever learned in writing was the Japanese ideal of yohaku-no-bi – the value of the empty space, or what isn’t there. Sometimes, that’s just as important, or even more so, than the precise detail we think of as so important.