The persistence of memory dali

The Persistence of Memory – Salvador Dali (1931)

For the longest time, I considered memory to be a writer’s worst enemy – especially if the work depended on historical facts. Yes, history is a beautiful spine on which to sculpt your writing so that it stands tall and true, but personal memory at some point invades, intervenes, blurring and bridging the boundaries of the textbook with the private lens. In its nature, memory is a treacherous creature, with a cat-like, self-serving temperament. It is biased, nimble-fingered, secretly sand-papering over the unsavoury while lengthening, gold-leafing and glorifying a fleeting moment.

Writers cast their buckets into the deep, dark well of memory, often to draw broken fragments of things real and imagined. We wrestle with its imperfect sequencing, the colour and timbre of our emotions. We agonise and doubt the integrity of the ingrained, painfully drafting and redrafting, until the event itself is depersonalized, no longer an original of itself and by default divorcing ourselves of any responsibility for it.

It is in times like these that we run and take shelter in the bosom of artistic license – when we cannot do the thing justice and the ink on the paper gleams wetly back at us, judgmental and doubtful of its own meaning. We cringe when the thing itself is butchered by a moment of caveman yammering, when what was needed, but was tragically absent, was the balanced, civilized and surgical precision of semantics.

In short, for the purely fictional writer, historical fiction can be a blessing and a curse. But it is all we have, and we write, not out of pleasure, but out of necessity, a desperation to record and in the off-chance, to immortalise a part of ourselves.

Therefore memories are fossils. Ribbons of magnetized tape that hold the code to not only our lives but countless others. DNA that irrevocably binds us all together. A mesh of voices whispering in the head, trapped.

What makes me write about the persistence of memory today? It is partly inspired by Penelope Lively’s booker prize winning novel Moon Tiger which I have reviewed here if you are interested in reading my thoughts about it. Lively treats memory in a different way. Her novel is about history, and centres around a historian (who is sadly losing her mind and is dying from cancer), but staring in the face of father time and realising she hasn’t got very much time, our determined protagonist comes to a startling conclusion: that memory, like time itself, doesn’t have to be ‘in sequence’ at all.

The past and present can exist in tandem, and is interwoven on purpose to show stark similarities and a very pronounced pattern than history, indeed, repeats itself. The life of Claudia Hampton and a fragment of ammonite are one and the same. Her memory of her last night with her one, true love in the searing heat of Cairo is superimposed on the Egyptian friezes of pharaohs and their sister-wives.

The big picture that emerges is one that suggests the following: are we just fragments of some god’s memory floating in the ether of space and time? Is this why this pattern is condemned to repeating itself? Why we are persistently reminded of our shortcomings and forced to reenact an event like a hiccup of history seven generations down the line? Why an abnormal chromosome assumed to have phased out, returns with a renewed aggressiveness?

Lively’s treatment of memory and time has made me think about my own work, and how really time and history aren’t really difficult to write about. It is our obsession with wanting everything to be linear, ordered, in sequence, that makes us fret. The concept itself is a fault by default. Some of the best novels I have ever read do not have linear timelines, as they are far more faithful to the way human memory behaves.

Reading Moon Tiger has relieved me of this expectation in my own work in progress. Whether we like it or not, memory and history has a way of surviving beyond us. For this I am thankful. I am even more thankful for the fact that language itself, one word, after another, after another, is distilled history itself, and as we write and talk we are constantly shuffling from one age to another without even knowing it.

Here, Claudia Hampton in one of her lucid moments makes her memorable speech about language:

Today language abandoned me. I could not find the word for a simple object – a commonplace familiar furnishing. For an instant, I stared into a void. Language tethers us to the world; without it we spin like atoms. Later, I made an inventory of the room – a naming of parts: bed, chair, table, picture, vase, cupboard, window, curtain. Curtain. And I breathed again.

We open our mouths and out flow words whose ancestries we do not even know. We are walking lexicons. In a single sentence of idle chatter we preserve Latin, Anglo-Saxon, Norse; we carry a museum inside our heads, each day we commemorate peoples of whom we have never heard. More than that, we speak volumes – our language is the language of everything we have not read. Shakespeare and the Authorised Version surface in supermarkets, on buses, chatter on radio and television. I find this miraculous. I never cease to wonder at it. That words are more durable than anything, that they blow with the wind, hibernate and reawaken, shelter parasitic on the most unlikely hosts, and survive and survive and survive.

Profound, isn’t it? How the alpha and the omega of everything may very well be, just words. And they will persist, beyond memory.





John Ernst Steinbeck (February 27, 1902 – December 20, 1968)

I don’t want to spoil the perfection of the following letter that is addressed to aspiring writers. If anyone has looked for a mentor to guide them along this lonely road of letters, then I give them John Steinbeck’s inspirational texts. Here’s a man who trod the path, understood what writing was ‘really’ about, and managed to convey it in a way that we beginners would be able to understand.

For all those who cannot ‘see’ their way clearly and are confused as to where their road is taking them, and for all those who think ‘reading’ is enough experience to write a good book, I invite them to think again. Steinbeck points towards the necessity of an inner enlightenment that an upcoming writer must go through to become who they want:

“Dear Writer:

 Although it must be a thousand years ago that I sat in a class in story writing at Stanford, I remember the experience very clearly. I was bright-eyes and bushy-brained and prepared to absorb the secret formula for writing good short stories, even great short stories. This illusion was canceled very quickly. The only way to write a good short story, we were told, is to write a good short story. Only after it is written can it be taken apart to see how it was done. It is a most difficult form, as we were told, and the proof lies in how very few great short stories there are in the world.

The basic rule given us was simple and heartbreaking. A story to be effective had to convey something from the writer to the reader, and the power of its offering was the measure of its excellence. Outside of that, there were no rules. A story could be about anything and could use any means and any technique at all – so long as it was effective. As a subhead to this rule, it seemed to be necessary for the writer to know what he wanted to say, in short, what he was talking about. As an exercise we were to try reducing the meat of our story to one sentence, for only then could we know it well enough to enlarge it to three- or six- or ten-thousand words.

So there went the magic formula, the secret ingredient. With no more than that, we were set on the desolate, lonely path of the writer. And we must have turned in some abysmally bad stories. If I had expected to be discovered in a full bloom of excellence, the grades given my efforts quickly disillusioned me. And if I felt unjustly criticized, the judgments of editors for many years afterward upheld my teacher’s side, not mine. The low grades on my college stories were echoed in the rejection slips, in the hundreds of rejection slips.

It seemed unfair. I could read a fine story and could even know how it was done. Why could I not then do it myself? Well, I couldn’t, and maybe it’s because no two stories dare be alike. Over the years I have written a great many stories and I still don’t know how to go about it except to write it and take my chances.

If there is a magic in story writing, and I am convinced there is, no one has ever been able to reduce it to a recipe that can be passed from one person to another. The formula seems to lie solely in the aching urge of the writer to convey something he feels important to the reader. If the writer has that urge, he may sometimes, but by no means always, find the way to do it. You must perceive the excellence that makes a good story good or the errors that makes a bad story. For a bad story is only an ineffective story.

It is not so very hard to judge a story after it is written, but, after many years, to start a story still scares me to death. I will go so far as to say that the writer who not scared is happily unaware of the remote and tantalizing majesty of the medium.

I remember one last piece of advice given me. It was during the exuberance of the rich and frantic ’20s, and I was going out into that world to try to be a writer.

I was told, “It’s going to take a long time, and you haven’t got any money. Maybe it would be better if you could go to Europe.”

“Why?” I asked.

“Because in Europe poverty is a misfortune, but in America it is shameful. I wonder whether or not you can stand the shame of being poor.”

It wasn’t too long afterward that the depression came. Then everyone was poor and it was no shame anymore. And so I will never know whether or not I could have stood it. But surely my teacher was right about one thing. It took a long time – a very long time. And it is still going on, and it has never got easier.

      She told me it wouldn’t.

                                                                          John Steinbeck, 1963

All journey’s begin somewhere, and what better adventure than to walk the road less travelled…

Everyone knows that beginnings are difficult. Like Alice tumbling down the rabbit hole, Dorothy falling into the land of Oz or Wendy’s flight into Neverland the budding writer draws a deep breath and begins a terrifying free-fall into a world of their own creation. I have always believed that all people have at least one story within them worth telling, and often the road that one travels on towards that story can sometimes be more fabulous and interesting than the story itself.

As fiction slowly replaces reality and I begin my transformation from reader to writer, this blog will help document the ups and downs of my personal journey into authorhood, the publishing world and everything else that is between and beyond.

Of course, I began my journey a while ago, but my realisation of the journey’s ‘significance’ did not dawn on me until quite recently. So here I give you ‘Notes About A Small Island’, my story about what it is to really begin at the very beginning, not knowing when or where or how the end will come about.

NOTE: ‘ Notes About A Small Island’ is by no means an expert handbook or fail-safe guide to writing or publishing a bestseller. Instead, it is the humble abode of all my experiences or rather, my growing ‘awareness’ as a writer for her art.  

Picture courtesy of A. Halil – ‘My Yellow Brick Road’