The benefit of a bad memory to a writer

Elephant memoryI won’t say my memory is bad, not exactly. Maybe more like…selective.

Actually, my memory for strange facts and numbers can be somewhat disturbing. I can tell you my phone number from childhood, or recite my office extension from three jobs and fifteen years ago. If I order something from the web, I don’t need to run and get my wallet, because I know all my credit cards, expirations and security codes by heart. Sometimes, playing along on Jeopardy, I realize how full of useless facts my head really is.

But long ago events in my own life? Not so much. Sometimes one of my sisters will be talking about something from our youth: “Don’t you remember that was the day that Dad…?” or “We all went for ice cream later…!” or “Remember then Mom…?”

Nope. I got nothing.

Or rather, only a little bit of…something. But not all of it. I guess you could say I remember things, but only partly, like I was there but not participating. More like I watched the events from a bleacher seat, like a spectator. Which probably isn’t far from the truth. As a writer, we’re always deep inside our heads, often somewhere else than everyone else thinks we are.

I thought of this recently, when on Facebook someone started sharing pictures that a local photographer had taken of things I had participated in when I was young: Little League baseball games, Boys & Girls Club basketball games, etc.

One of these came across my feed after a friend from my childhood commented on it. His comment went something like this: “I remember this game! It was our team (the Blue Jays) against the Indians and we won!” He went on to list the names of the players on each team. I think he even reproduced the score from the recesses of his mind.


I do remember being on the Indians. I remember the white uniforms and bold “Indians” across the chest. I remember that my best friend’s Dad was our coach. But…I do NOT remember the individual games. I mean, all due respect, but did this guy really remember, out of the hundreds of Little League games we all played against each other, winning this particular one? And the score and players and all that??!

Maybe. I sure as hell don’t.

And, honestly, rather than being a negative thing, I think having this partial, selective memory is a hugely important skill for a fiction writer.

It reminds me of another skill we writers have. Or rather, a thing we do. Any writer will tell you, “Don’t sit near me in the coffee shop, because odds are I’m eavesdropping on your conversation.” This is completely true. But here’s the thing, at least in my case: I don’t want to hear your entire conversation. I just want to hear the beginning. I want to be left hanging with only part of the story, because I want to fill in the rest for myself, with my own imagination.

So, for example, I want to hear you say, “I can’t believe John would leave me standing there like that.” And then I want to imagine who John is, where he left you standing and why, what might be going on in your relationship. What I imagine will likely be distant from reality but also, possibly (probably?) more interesting.

The same goes for my memory of past events: I love that I can only remember parts of things, distant images and colors, freeze-frame scenes, rather than the full details like my sisters. Because this allows that imagination of mine to fill in the rest however I want to.

As a matter of fact, here’s what I remember about that Little League game between my team, the Indians, and the Blue Jays from about thirty years ago:

My friend was the star pitcher, his father the coach. But back then Little League pitchers were only allowed to pitch the first three innings of each six-inning game. Someone had to come in to pitch the last three innings. That someone was me. After five innings, the score was tied at zero. Then, our team scratched out a run in the top of the sixth. If I could keep the Blue Jays scoreless in the bottom of the inning, we’d win the game. I stepped onto the mound, nerves rattled, and walked the first two batters. The third hit a harmless foul pop to the first baseman for the first out. The fourth batter hit a seeing-eye grounder between the shortstop and third baseman, but our left fielder was playing in, and the runner from second couldn’t score with only one out. But the bases were loaded. I needed to reach deep. I could’t walk anyone else, allow a hit or even a decent fly ball, any of which would at least tie the game. And I needed two outs, while the next two hitters were their best, including the cleanup batter. I dug my cleats into the soft dirt of the mound, wound up my sidearm delivery and threw the best pitches of my life. The next hitter, too eager to tie the game, swung at two pitches outside the zone before freezing up on a pitch on the inside corner, striking out. It was down to me and the cleanup batter. He fouled the first pitch off. After looking at two balls, he swung and missed at an inside pitch. One more ball and the count was full. The runners on each base twitched and leapt off the bags, ready to run. They’d be going with the next pitch. Just the week before, my uncle had taught me to throw my first curveball, but I hadn’t developed full control over it yet. The few times I’d tried to throw it in practice, it had swung way inside, nearly hitting the batter. I wiped the worry from my mind, adjusted my fingers on the ball, wound up and threw it. As soon as it left my hand, I could see the ball headed straight for their huge batter. It would hit him and the tying run would score. Or worse, he’d duck and the catcher would miss it, allowing maybe two runs to score. But at the very last minute, it broke straight over the plate. His knees buckled and the umpire called strike three. The game was over. The Indians – my Indians – had won 1-0!

Hey, some of that is actually true. I won’t tell you which parts. That’s half the fun. And, again, I’m glad I don’t quite remember, because it’s one hell of a story, isn’t it?

And that’s kind of the point.



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