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The Power of Memory: Use It in Your Writing

We might well examine just how deeply our memories influence the way we behave. After all, what are we intellectually and emotionally if not an amalgam of our memories?
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Film director and screenwriter Akira Kurosawa once said, "It is the power of memory that gives rise to the power of imagination." All creative artists reach back in time, often to childhood experiences, for inspiration. We can see this in works as diverse as the short stories of fantasy writer Ray Bradbury and the songs of popular tunesmiths Elvis Costello and Paul McCartney. These artists seem drawn to the past as if it had an inextricable hold on them, as if their brains were hardwired to return there again and again. Often, even the most fantastic or unrealistic fictional episode can be traced to an indelible incident in a writer's youth.

In my community college English classes, I sometimes rail against what I call the generic paper, the kind of response essay that could be written by just about anybody because it is void of even a modicum of individuality. I tell my students not to sell themselves short, that everyone is unique because we all have our own experiences and memories that make us who we are. The light of individual memory can shine upon any piece of writing, no matter what the subject, and make it glow.

Evidence for the paramount importance of early influences is observable not only in the world of art but also in the realm of science, for instance in the groundbreaking work of neuropsychologist Elizabeth Gould. According to a 2006 article by Jonah Lehrer in Seed magazine, Gould has shown that early environmental influences play a profound role in the development of the brain and its ability to create new brain cells. This leads me to think that the powerful grip of memory is not only common and universal, but inevitable. And it is not unique to creative artists; it can be observed in the behavior of everyone, even a hapless anti-hero like Ray Bradbury's Doug Spaulding.

We might well examine just how deeply our memories influence the decisions we make and the way we behave. After all, what are we intellectually and emotionally if not an amalgam of our memories? If we suddenly suffered from total amnesia and were not able to remember anything about our lives, who would we be but total strangers to ourselves? Yet memories are nothing but insubstantial electronic impulses passing among the neurons and synapses of our brains. In this light, our sense of self seems to be very delicate and tenuous. That most of us are able to maintain our identities over several decades seems an almost miraculous side effect of the evolutionary process.

Liz Gould is a neuroscientist at Princeton University's Department of Psychology. She works with marmosets, which are unique animals: they look like rodents but have brains very similar to those of primates. Gould studies the impact of environment on brain development. It turns out that scientists were wrong in their long-held assumption that the brains of primates (including humans) could not generate new neurons after exiting the womb. They can.

What is socially significant about this is that Gould's work strongly suggests that people who have been raised in poverty, for instance, and have therefore grown up in very stressful situations tend to produce fewer new neurons in their brains than those raised in more nurturing conditions. This is earthshaking in its implications. Some of us lucky ones have had such a big head start in life that our less fortunate brethren can never catch up. And just imagine how this ability to create new brain cells -- or the diminishing of this ability -- might influence how memory works.

In "The Utterly Perfect Murder," which can be found in the collection I Sing the Body Electric!, Bradbury introduces us to forty-eight-year-old Doug Spaulding, who has harbored a grudge against his erstwhile best friend and nemesis Ralph Underhill for thirty-six years. Doug's lingering memories of Ralph's bullying him have festered deep inside his psyche, affecting his thinking for most of his life. Doug is the victim of an emotionally undernourished and stressful childhood, a plight now scientifically shown to be detrimental to healthy brain development. Could this perhaps explain Doug's seemingly irrational obsession with Ralph Underhill?

In one of his more poignant numbers, "Just a Memory," Elvis Costello sings, "Losing you is just a memory / Memories don't mean that much to me." These lines are, of course, ironic. We can tell by the timbre of Costello's voice that memories mean everything to him, for he knows that they will color or discolor his relationships -- successful or not -- for the rest of his life. After all, what makes for a great relationship more than shared memories, shared experiences? Elvis sings, "But the pen that I write with won't tell the truth / 'Cause the moments that I can't recall / Are the moments that you treasure." There is trouble in paradise here because the woman he is singing to treasures memories that he does not have and thus cannot relate to. Since their memories don't coincide, they cannot provide safe common ground, and that creates insurmountable obstacles to a stable, long-term relationship.

Paul McCartney's "Penny Lane," released as a single by the Beatles in 1967, is a sublime evocation of a world viewed through the tinted lens of memory. The way the song begins drives this interpretation home: "In Penny Lane there is a barber showing photographs / Of every head he's had the pleasure to know." (As in short stories like "The Sniper" by Liam O'Flaherty and Bradbury's "Any Friend of Nicholas Nickleby's Is a Friend of Mine," we visit a barber shop and recall its significance as a place of social communion.) McCartney's barber tacks his memories, head shots of people whose hair he has cut, on the wall for all his customers to see; thus he shares his memories with everyone who enters his shop, establishing a commonality of experience conducive to further social communion.

As the song continues, we are treated to a phantasmagorical cityscape inhabited by other clearly defined, uniformed people such as a banker, a fireman, and a nurse -- easily recognizable folks who reside in the memories of all, a group among which almost anyone would feel comfortable. McCartney has talked about his happy childhood as opposed to the stressful one of fellow Beatle John Lennon. Compare the happy-sounding "Penny Lane" to the dark, foreboding sonic landscape of Lennon's childhood memoir, "Strawberry Fields Forever," which was the flip side of the single.

This brings us back to the work of Liz Gould. Could Paul have been capable of writing "Strawberry Fields"? Could John have been capable of writing "Penny Lane"? Perhaps the answer is no: perhaps the profoundly different levels of stress they experienced in the environments of their early youth affected their brains in such a way that precluded them from writing anything different from what they actually did produce.