Nicola Vincent-Abnett

Nicola Vincent-Abnett
"Savant" for Solaris, Wild's End, Further Associates of Sherlock Holms, more Wild's End

Thursday 30 May 2013

Writing and the Memory Hypothesis

I have all sorts of issues with memory and the fact that mine is erratic at best. I have lost years along the way, and hundreds of people, because of my own particular brand of mind madness.

A rare photo of me as a child, with my mother
I do know one thing, though. I know that my memories go back a very long way. I know that my memories go back to sitting in my pram and to crawling, and I know that even my earliest memories contain the kind of minutiae that is rare even for remembrances of big important events. Unlike lots of other people, I also don't have photos to aid my memory, since there are very few of me as a child, or of the rest of my family.

I was reading Ray Bradbury’s Zen in the Art of Writing and he too spoke of memory, and I began to wonder whether having the kind of memory that has total recall of the pattern and fringing on a pram canopy, or the shoes I wore on my first day of school is common among storytellers. I wonder if the capacity to tell stories comes partly from a wellspring of details that we happen to have in our heads. I never need to search for a child’s plaid cape, for a man’s driving gloves, for a punk hair style or a fancy brass escutcheon, because those things live in my memories. I never need to wonder what a lace petticoat feels like or a scratchy jumper or the trickle of a nosebleed or the stub of a toe. Memory serves me well. I recall the standard decor of every age since the sixties, and the advent of gas fires and then central heating, of chest freezers and then fridge freezers. I remember when Woolworths had ashtrays on stands at the ends of the aisles for the smokers. 

All these things live in my recall, and there is no effort on my part to transfer the details I need for any story into the prose I am writing, and I have five decades of this stuff. It’s mundane, I suppose, the layers of detail that make up the backdrop of our lives, but I can’t help thinking that having it all there is a great enabler for the storyteller.

The husband’s memory is not unlike mine. It goes back almost as far and is equally rich in detail. I know this, because we’ve talked about it. He has fewer gaps, and remembers more of the books he’s read and the films he’s watched, and more of the research he’s done, over the years, but he has the advantage of having a more conventional brain chemistry. I don’t often envy him, but his facility for remembering plots, scenarios, locations, scientific theories and other bits and bobs certainly shows in his work, and must make his job easier.

I often speak to my brothers and sisters about our childhoods. I’m rather fascinated by our experiences and how we have processed them. We shared life-changing episodes, which influenced our lives in very different ways, and I am still looking for answers as to why that might be, beyond the facts that we are all very different people.

I shall never have the answers, and there are several reasons for that.

We all bring our own interpretations to events in our childhoods, and that is only fair. Family relationships and the politics that surround them are endlessly complicated, and that’s fair too.

The single biggest impediment to my getting the answers to those questions, however, is that my brothers and sisters simply do not remember the events of our childhoods. Of the five of us, three remember almost nothing prior to secondary school, at which time they would have been eleven years old... Almost nothing!

I’ve tried sharing some of my memories, thinking that a little prompting might jog theirs’, but it simply doesn’t happen.

I wonder if this is why I am a storyteller and they are not. I wonder if the fact that I can remember a dress I was wearing on a particular day, or that I can remember what my sister was wearing, too, or the slide in my mother’s hair, or the pie my grandmother cooked makes me different from other people.

I also wonder whether it makes me the same as other writers.

I’d really be very interested to find out.


  1. You may be onto something! I can remember the great satisfaction of crawling fo the first time, the cool pattern of tiles under my fingers, the end of the passageway that seems so big to me now but I didn't know I was so small. Detail comes easily, and now I observe and recall new things the same way. Perhaps being so nosy and observant provided all those memories, and makes us weave stories.

    1. Funnily enough, Catherine said much the same thing. Is it chickens or eggs, though? Do we remember details because we like to tell stories, or do we tell stories because we have good memories? Strange, isn't it? And rather wonderful, I think.

  2. According to my friends and family I have a freakishly good memory. Sometimes my wife accuses me of telepathy when I skip to the thing she is thinking because she forgets we had a conversation about it last year.

    Ironically I have to work hard to remember that most people cannot pick up a casual conversation weeks later or put two things they saw days apart together to make a hypothesis without having taken notes. So I spend a certain amount of time over-repeating things because I do not know how many times average people need to hear something before it sticks.

    My memory seems to be influenced by - or influenced - working as a trial lawyer for years: if I read/hear something I will be able to remember and analyse it so I can deliver complex arguments without needing to stop to refer to notes. However, if I do take notes I forget almost straight away.