I’ve been teaching my students about memory this week. It’s always been my favorite chapter to teach in my Introduction to Psychology course. Human memory is an interpretive process, different than say, the memory process of the computers they are so familiar with. When you save your term paper and come back to it the next day, it’s exactly the way you left it, errors and all. Not so with human memory. Individual memories are not stand alone events. They connect with other memories, with smells and sounds and shapes of experiences we have had before. We tend to remember things we feel strongly about, the good and the not so good. Emotion is important in what we remember.
As a memoirist people often ask me how I remember the things I write about. I’ve never been particularly good at semantic memory; the details of a memory. I often don’t remember the names of the movies I’ve seen or the titles of books I’ve read but ask me about an experience and it all comes flooding back. Last night, for instance, my husband and I went to see the documentary Linda Ronstadt: The Sound of My Voice. If you haven’t seen it, it’s well worth it, especially for those of us of a certain age. As I listened to songs like “When Will I Be Loved” and “You’re No Good” I was instantly transported back to when I was in high school, when I spent my summers going down the shore with my best friend Anne, the two of us driving in her red “3 on the tree” stick shift, the music blaring, on our way to her grandmother’s house in Point Pleasant. It’s like a little window opens and all of a sudden I’ve crawled in, beginning to look around at the sights and sounds and emotions from that important time in my life .
That was what it was like when I wrote The Cardinal Club. I’d start with the one inch square that Anne Lamott talks about in her classic book, Bird By Bird. A distant memory. A faded and yellowed photograph. The words to a song that suddenly popped into my head. Before long that one inch square gave way to another and then another. Like a puzzle, piece by piece, until soon an entire picture begins to form. And when I’d finish, when I’d step back and look at what was there, I’d be amazed. It felt like magic.
The writer Anais Nin said, “We do not see things as they are, we see things as we are.” The same can be said for memory. The Cardinal Club is filled with one inch squares of my memory. They may not be the memories my brothers and sister have. I’ve often been amazed when we get together and rehash old stories. Sometimes the memories are shared. Other times they are very different. That’s the challenge with memory. What we remember and why we remember is as unique as we are individually. That’s what makes it fascinating.