Much is made of memory in novels. The introduction of memories into the story, most often in the form of flashbacks, is endemic. These visions of the past allow writers to explore their characters’ dramatic histories, to draw parallels with the fictional (or even real-life) present, and give their readers a glimpse into the future, offering clues or pointers as to the direction their stories are likely to go. Memory is the fertile patch in the garden where writers grow their plot points, where truths can be revealed, waters muddied, and dark secrets hinted at.
But what about a writer’s memory?
I believe that a writer’s memory is slightly different to that of a person who doesn’t write fiction. If I’m typical of the breed, then I remember a great many things that have either happened to me or which I have remotely witnessed, either heard or overheard, and I seem to remember them already organised into neat little scenes, stretches of dialogue, or telling images, all just waiting to be transplanted into one story or another. But that’s not the part of a writer’s memory I’m talking about.
With all due respect to Salvador Dali (and apologies for nicking his title), I often think of writing a novel as working on a piece of sculpture. You start out with rough blocks of stone, carefully chosen for their potential. Then, over an uncountable number of hours, you begin to carve out the rough version of the vision you have already crafted in your mind. Once the form is correctly proportioned, you begin to refine every single detail, pecking away with your hammer and chisel again and again and again, until you have achieved the best likeness possible. Every feature, every wrinkle, every nuance of expression, have their counterpart in the construction of sentences and paragraphs and chapters.
Small wonder then that so many of these tiny elements and details remain so indelibly in our memory.
This is why writers so often find it next to impossible to effectively proof and edit their own work. Because there comes a moment during the final stages of a novel where you are so familiar with every element of your story, which you have pored over, chipping and chipping away, for far longer than any non-writer would ever believe, that you cease to see it as it really is. You see it only as it exists in your memory of creating it, word by word, sentence by sentence, paragraph by paragraph. You remember everything, in holographic detail, even if you have set your penultimate draft aside for several months to work on other projects. This is the persistence of memory.
But there’s always an exception that proves the rule, and this is mine.
Recently I had some files magically transferred from an old word-processing format into the one I currently use. Much of the work in the files is material I haven’t seen for years, because I have no hard copies. Reading through the long-lost stories and sections of abandoned novels, I was forcibly struck by just how much I remembered of them, even after all this time. I still recalled every chisel mark, every chip I’d taken off to straighten the sculpture’s nose. But then I came across something very weird indeed.
It was a file called CAT. This came at me from so far out of leftfield that I was convinced an error had been made, that the company responsible for transferring my files from format to format had mistakenly added another author’s work to mine. But then I started to read CAT, and I was forced to change my mind. The more I read the more I realised that I must have written it. It used my vocabulary, my rhythm, my timing, and it had my mindset and worldview. It was definitely, unmistakably, my work, but I couldn’t recall writing any single word of the twenty-plus thousand in the file.
I have tried as hard as I possibly could over a period of weeks to dredge up memories of writing this material, but I have failed, and I have no explanation for its existence whatsoever.
It’s a real life mystery.