Writing Right with Dmitri: Slippery Memories

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Writing Right with Dmitri: Slippery Memories

Editor at work.

Lately, what I've been writing and reading has been giving me food for thought about the role memory plays in building identity – our own, and our fictional characters'.

What I've been writing is US history. This year, we've been doing revision materials. Basically, we've been creating modules that take students back over key periods, concepts, or developments in the part of the country's story that school boards and the Princeton boffins say they need to know. We remind them of key terms, and how they fit into the fabric of a more-or-less coherent view of events. It's a challenge, getting it all down in an effective, bite-sized format. And then the 3-minute summary movies…oh, my… But it's a change from my usual 'in-depth' sort of lesson.

I always tend to enjoy the first several months of US history. Whether we're starting back when the American Indians (policy is against 'Native Americans', as many tribes don't like that name) were unmolested by Spaniards, French fur traders, and religious nuts from England, or whether we start, as this course did, with the unedifying Reconstruction period, I like being back in the past. I know what I'm talking about, I know where the sources are, and I have some fun ideas about how to present it all in an interesting way.

I usually dread the last month. Not only because of the stepped-up deadlines. The material is less fun. You see, we get into the 'history' that's barely history to me. The stuff I remember personally. And I don't like it much. Not only do I have to be very careful – after all, my personal reaction to President Reagan is irrelevant – but it's hard to tell which source to rely on. Everybody's got an opinion. But somehow, I always live through it.

Now, I have a long historical memory. I can chase references to my distant relatives back to those early pesky (and possibly criminal) settlers. I can even find tantalising clues in the Domesday Book. Personally, I knew people who were alive in the 19th Century, and as a kid, I pestered them for details. For instance, I know that once, back in the 1890s, there was a boy named David. He was a studious Jewish kid in a poor neighbourhood in New York City. Almost all the other kids in that neighbourhood were Irish. They didn't want him to feel left out, so the other boys nicknamed him 'Murph'. Murph grew up to be a professional pianist and music educator. I know, because the only other non-Irish kid on that street, my Swedish-born piano teacher, told me all about her friend when I used one of his music books.

Did you ever ask the old folks who were alive back then what World War II was like? Did you listen to the men's war stories, the women's complaints about rationing? Did anybody tell you what it was like to spend the night in an Anderson shelter? The guy who taught me Dutch was a little older than I was. He shared some of his earliest memories with me: watching Allied planes fly overheard during the last year of the war. I gained a new perspective by looking through that toddler's eyes.

There's a hilarious send-up of a book report on Harper Lee's Go Set a Watchman on the internet. Read it twice: once for the laugh-out-loud humour, once again for the sharp observation of generational attitudes. Keep in mind that the writer is being intentionally clueless. But she's made some good points. Some are positive: we're glad that the 21st Century finds the 1950s fear of 'miscegenation' ludicrous. They should. Yes, kids, it results in 'hot' people like Halle Berry and Barack Obama. But the review also points to the fact that most people's problem with that book is that it was published yesterday – but written in another century.

The past is a foreign country to most people, and can't be visited easily – except by means of the time machine called memory.

I've also just finished watching a lovely New Zealand TV series called This Is Not My Life. What is it about New Zealand that makes those people so creative? I am in awe. This science fiction series, which I heartily recommend if you can find it on your country's Hulu – it's only 13 episodes – concerns a man who wakes up one morning in a panic because he can't remember who he is. And he can't recognise anyone around him.

There's more to it than that, of course. The man is a major player in the story. The town he's in, Waimoana, is a Milton Keynes with computer-backed social engineering going on. It's a pretty cool story. It's classic science fiction at its best: thoughtful, scientific, and still character-driven in spite of the science. And it deals with memory. A lot.

Memory makes these people who they are. One character misses his induced memories so much that he begs for them back. Readers of Go Set a Watchman who loved To Kill a Mockingbird want their old characters back: the 'nicer' ones the New York publisher helped design. The ones who weren't messy, hypocritical, and borderline insane real-live denizens of southern Alabama in the 1950s.

We like tidier memories. We enjoy watching 'documentaries' that are really slideshows about the greatest hits of the past: Frank Sinatra croons, girls swoon; Kate Smith sings 'While the storm clouds gather far across the sea…', and freckle-faced boys collect tinfoil for the War Effort. And then Hitler's defeated, it's on the newsreels, the atom bomb explodes at a safe distance, and we all have a party. That's a manageable set of memories for us.

But this process falsifies, not only reality, but our true character. To tell the truth about ourselves, maybe we should explore those memories a bit further. Go deeper. Don't just read the comfortable stuff. Read some Ian McEwan, perhaps. He has a way of picking at those historical sore places.

And when you write, keep those uncomfortable realities in mind. Okay, as long as the school board will let you. But when and where you can, tell the truth the best you can see it and know it. Remember the lone Jewish kid amongst the Irish kids. Yeah, they thought his name was funny. But they 'helped' him out with a new one, their offering of belonging. This, too, is an historical memory. And it's as real as any other.

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Dmitri Gheorgheni

10.08.15 Front Page

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