How do writers use the idea of memory to help tell stories?

Are there any novels or films that don’t rely on the premise of ‘I remember’? The idea of memory is more embedded in art than I think we credit. The fact that a story needs to be told is central as to why the reader – or viewer is being offered in the first place. We have all heard stories that began with the winsome phrase ‘Once upon a time’ when we were children. The narrator’s memory is always being engaged to pass on a story from one to another. As readers (or childlike listeners) we suspend disbelief and give the narrator the room to tell us what they want to say. But memory is the method that allows them to recall it. I think different authors use the idea of memory in different ways to highlight its aspects, and I think it’s worth giving some thought to.

I think all human beings want to make sense of the world and what’s happened to them. It is all part of us achieving a coherent sense of who we are. Central to all storytelling is the idea that by offering a narrative we’ll make sense of something. Something that happened to us, or something significant that happened in the world. I recently watched the brilliant Stand By Me – the chilling and haunting film based on a Stephen King novel. It concerns a narrator’s memory of a chilling childhood event – when he and a few other variously damaged friends run away from home in search of a dead body in a nearby valley. The kind of jaunt I am sure few of us have gone on! I realised that even though King portrays childhood as a savage and brutal terrain in which the young are powerless, King also sees the formative years as a time of purity, worthy of being recovered in memory. He portrays childhood as a time when people already have within them the qualities that will make their life meaningful – it’s the cruel world, or the cruel people within it – that present obstacles for this intent. The childhood version of King in the story is an awkward, intense boy who loves telling stories – even though his father hates him for it. At the end of the film we see the boy ‘all grown up’ – a successful author complete with loving children and a beautifully wood panelled study. For King, memory is an act of recall of who we truly are – a way of explaining who we’ve become.

I think the playwright Harold Pinter uses memory to highlight other aspects of people. In his most famous work, The Caretaker, a rather vagrant old man called Davies exploits the generosity of a young man called Aston and stays with him. Davies spends the whole play pretending that he will leave his house any day now, ‘as soon as the weather breaks’, and go down to Sidcup to get ‘his papers’. This mythical (but actually pretty dour!) Sidcup becomes a place in which Davies’ true identity will be proven, allowing him to become a legitimate member of society again. As the play progresses Davies spins more and more lies about his past, picking up on the preferences of whoever is in the room with him to talk up various aspects of his past to his advantage. His time in the armed forces, or even his experience as a decorator if the thinks that’ll help! Davies’ selective memory hides who he really is and allows him to adapt to the present. It makes him a slippery eel of a man who can never be pinned down, and by his elusiveness he guarantees his survival for another day. For Pinter, a characters memory is tied up with how easily he can be defined, and therefore controlled.

Other authors have also used the idea of memory to show a character within a story. For the Czech writer Milan Kundera, memory and forgetting are also key to how well defined a character is. In his famous collection The Book of Laughter and Forgetting he considers forgetting to be a political act. After a conflict, the victors ‘forget’ the narrative and ideology of those that were defeated and their new ideologies are all we know. So in order to find out who we really are, in terms of our citizenship, we have to remember the ‘erased’ identities that those in power have tried to eradicate. Kundera talks of the Communist invasion of the Czech Republic, and how for artists in particular the memory of an ideology before a country was invaded is a triumph of recall. The true identity of a person can be revealed by resisting the act of forgetting.

Other authors – such as Marcel Proust and Gustave Flaubert- actually depicted characters struggling with the clarity of their memories in the moment. They told stories focusing on the abstract, nebulous nature of memory to ask questions about who they are, and I’ll discuss this in part two. Are there any other authors you know who’ve used the idea of memory to help tell stories in a way you found interesting?

6 Comments

  1. carole925 22 March 2017 at 1:04 pm

    This a very interesting article, Guy. I find my own writing is influenced by my memory of childhood and it certainly helps me to ‘build’ my characters.
    I was struck by Mallory Blackman’s book ‘Noughts and Crosses’ and how much her childhood influenced her in her portrayal of young people. I thought it was very clever how she turned the tables and made black people the ruling class and made them particularly racist and class driven.She has said in interviews that she noticed as a child that all the books she read were written and about white people and that she was treated differently because of her colour. She wanted to make her heroes and heroines black as they were never portrayed that way in books but as the ‘Baddie’.Because she wrote the book where white people were discriminated against she showed how easily any of us could be on the receiving end.

    Reply
  2. Guy Mankowski 22 March 2017 at 3:22 pm

    Thanks. That’s a good point- that book uses memory to interrogate the idea of race really well. Some writers can portray memory in a way that’s really political!

    Reply
  3. Liz Cashdan 23 March 2017 at 6:10 pm

    yes, I reckon memory is one of the most important tools a writer has. But of course memory is selective and unreliable, again a useful tool for a writer, whether in reference to their own memory or the memories of their characters. Then of course there is the other important thing a writer can do and that is play with memory but saying : What if I change it?

    Reply
  4. Deborah 23 March 2017 at 8:47 pm

    I really enjoyed using the ‘elastic memory’ method during Writing Short Fiction… it makes those traumatic moments feel slightly less so in the retelling and injection of moments that didn’t actually happen but very well could have. Life is a constant stream of material – good and bad .

    Reply
  5. Nina Milton 25 March 2017 at 8:09 am

    One of my favourite authors, Julian Barnes, uses memory a lot. In his 2011 Booker-winner The Sense of an Ending, he uses a buried memory to trigger a denouement and an epiphany in his protagonist, Tony, helping him make sense of everything. And, then, in his brilliant non-fiction book of essays, Levels of Life, he delves into memory again.
    Actually, in tiny ways, I think all writers use their own memories all the time. When I’m writing, I pull up memories of my own that will enhance the detail of the scene or even a single moment in a book. I think that gives the writing authority and authenticity.

    Reply
    1. Guy Mankowski 4 April 2017 at 3:45 pm

      Deborah, just wondered if you could say any more about ‘elastic memory’, for any casual readers? Nina, good point about Julian Barnes. I recently finished The Noise of Time in which he uses memory to recall how his identity was politically controlled during the eras of Stalin, Kruschev etc. Similar to how Kundera uses it.

      Reply

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.