Saturday, January 31, 2015


Every man is more than just himself; he also represents the unique, the very special and always significant and remarkable point at which the world's phenomena intersect, only once in this way, and never again. That is why every man's story is important, eternal, sacred; that is why every man, as long as he lives and fulfills the will of nature, is wondrous, and worthy of consideration.”

Demian: The Story of Emil Sinclair’s Youth by Hermann Hesse

I have started a project that probably has no end, and no real immediate goal other than the process itself.

Because I don't have enough to do, apparently.

I recently read an advance copy of The Sculptor, the new graphic novel by Scott McCloud (of Understanding Comics fame). My main thoughts on the book will appear in a review for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, so this blog isn't meant as an examination of the book. But The Sculptor was a springboard for thinking about a whole lot of stuff, primarily the nature of memory and how we construct the story of our lives.

The main character in the book, David Smith, is a sculptor. Most of his work is an attempt to capture the small moments of his life, to immortalize his memories in stone so that fleeting impressions will not be lost. The story is also about the reality that death awaits us all sooner or later. The classic idea that when you die your entire life passes before your eyes is used to great dramatic effect in the narrative. I think the essence of this notion is that in that last moment we will find some kind of clarity as to what all the small events and memories of our lives meant. What was the structure and theme of this life I've led? What did I learn from all of this?

Which got me to thinking about my own memories and life. Parts of our lives “flash before our eyes” every time we have a memory. So, I thought to myself, why wait until I die to try and see the whole picture and see what I can learn?

In the series of books written by Carlos Castaneda, books that were very formative to me at one time, he introduces the idea of Recapitulation (The Eagle's Gift, 1982). Recapitulation consisted of “recollecting one's life down to the most insignificant detail.” The purpose of this was to engage the past in an effort let go of the things that held you back, to escape the demands of ego. Recapitulation is “genuine laughter upon coming face to face with the boring repetition of one's self-esteem, which is at the core of all human interactions.”

In short, it is used to heal. This idea isn't new or exclusive to Castaneda. It's part of most forms of psychotherapy.

I've been watching the Showtime series The Affair this week. No real spoilers here, but the conceit of the show is a “He Said, She Said” sort of dialectic. Both of the main characters are relating the memories of what took place, and the differences are significant, indicating not that they are lying (though they may be), but that each of them perceived the events through their own subjective filters (what some friends of mine have been referring to as Reality Tunnels). Events had different meanings and significance for each of them, based on their own experience and perceptions. They are both unreliable narrators.

Memory is the most unreliable narrator we know. Any given event is a moment in time that passes, only to be relived through the subjective memories of those who experienced it. No two people ever remember things exactly the same way. The difficulty in getting to the truth from eyewitnesses is evidence of this. What we end up with is a consensual reality, a version of the world we can all agree on even when it doesn't really mesh with what we remember. Over time, the story, if told well enough and often enough, replaces the actuality, often in the face of overwhelming evidence. The historical reality is always replaced by the story we tell about it.

And we all tell different stories.

I'm fascinated by this. It's one of the themes in my Arthurian novel, Bedivere: The King's Right Hand. The tale is narrated by Sir Bedivere in the later years of his life, and he is very aware of not only the failings of his own memory, but of how the stories and legends of King Arthur have already supplanted what he remembers as the truth.

I've read that our memory of an event is an ever-renewing process as well. When we have a memory of something what we are actually recalling is our previous memory of it, like rewriting over an already existing file. Each time we have a memory we are different people than the last time we remembered it. So now it is filtered through different layers of understanding, changing its meaning, therefore changing the actual memory every time.

So, that project I mentioned... Yeah, I'm trying to log all my memories. All of them. I know. It's impossible. That's okay. There's no deadline. This isn't for public consumption or any kind of project I ever intend to put out into the world (though some of the more interesting or funny stories may make it into a blog or a Facebook status update occasionally). This is navel gazing at it's finest.

I'm trying to be somewhat organized with how I do this. I do just jot down random things as they come to me. Not everything, of course.There's simply not enough time for that. It's amazing how many little memories you can have in a single day when you just start really paying attention to how you think. I've created files organized into various categories, like specific school memories, broken down by grade, or describing everything I can about the house I grew up in. I'm working on a list of every concert I've seen (I've seen a lot), and trying to track down dates and venues and who the opening bands were. I have some old ticket stubs and of course the internet helps. I have specific memories of all of these, some more vibrant that others.

The process is a rabbit hole, of course. When I focus on one topic, say first grade, it's amazing how many things come back that I haven't thought of in years, like snow forts and head wounds and the time the teacher broke the paddle on Kathy's butt.

So why do this? To get a better understanding of my own story and look for the recurring themes. To let some of it go, I suppose, though I don't have a lot of regrets. I'm one of the lucky ones who had a pretty happy childhood. To get ideas for stories. To enhance my creativity. To record my memories before they're gone (for whose benefit after I'm not sure).

One of the problems that David Smith has in The Sculptor was that he was so invested in capturing his past that he had problems living in the present or making new memories. I don't think that's a problem. My recent bout of hibernation and introversion aside, I have a pretty full life, and will hopefully continue to have one.

In the meantime, Once Upon a Time, that reminds me of a story...

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