The Moment and the Memory of It

The Disintegration of the Persistence of Memory by Salvador Dali
Remember me? *

There is a lot written about living in the moment, why it’s good for you and how to do it. It’s all about paying attention, which is especially important advice for writers because paying attention is critical to building and honing the kind of deep insight we need to create meaningful characters and stories.

One uniquely modern dilemma is learning how to balance being in the moment with the urge to record it. There are so many nifty ways to record every moment of our lives, and so many cool devices that we carry around in our pockets to collect all these memories. There’s a kind of emotional logic to the idea that capturing these memories and uploading them to external memory containers like our computer’s hard drive, the cloud, or various social networks will be more stable then just trusting them to our own fickle wetware.

Our modern understanding of the brain in general, and memory in particular, is a vast and fascinating field. Currently, memory is understood to be largely a reconstruction of events built from experiences that are often melded with otherinformation we’ve encountered. Check out “How Our Brains Make Memories” over at the Smithsonian.

Daniel Kahneman, the Nobel Laurate who wrote Thinking Fast and Slow, talks here about how experience, memory and happiness are connected and how they are not.


Toni Morrison supports this idea of reconstructed memory in her excellent essay “Memory, Creation, and Writing” (PDF), when she talks about deliberately using her memories’ fungible nature when writing.

“Memory (the deliberate act of remembering) is a form of willed creation. It is not an effort to find out the way it really was – that is research. The point is to dwell on the way it appeared and why it appeared in that particular way.”

~ Toni Morrison

“Memory, Creation, and Writing” Thought Vol. 59, No. 235 (December 1984)

 I haven’t seen any studies about how our devices affect our memories yet, but I believe that when I’m involved with recording an event, it interferes with experiencing it. It turns whatever’s happening into a different experience, and therefore a different kind of memory. When we become too busy recording our existence for upload, we have less internalized material available to us when we need to create. This is important, because it’s our internalized experiences that are the raw material for good writing.

How hard is it to reconstruct some event if you didn’t fully experience it? How can you draw from it emotionally if you were reigning in your full emotional experience so that you could hold your device steady? When you take a picture or video of an event you have a different kind of record, a completely legitimate one – I don’t want you to get the idea that I’m writing this post from some moral high ground. I love my electronic devices and enjoy hanging around Facebook, Twitter and Pinterest. I too am guilty of “curating” my life.

But, as a writer, what I draw on when I create is my bank of experiential memories. On the times when I was entirely there in the moment. We don’t need to throw our devices into the bonfire, or cancel all our social accounts, just remember to balance your time with them. Remember that while our human memories may not be good at collecting the kind of photographic, factual data that a camera can, they are the best at collecting a different kind of truth. You are the most complex and mysterious recording device. The truth you tell from your remembered experiences is the truth of you, and it’s what readers want. 

“You must live in the present, launch yourself on every wave, find your eternity in each moment.”

~ Henry David Thoreau


* I don’t really make New Year’s resolutions. If I were to make one this year, it would be to have a couple blog posts in the can for busy family times like the holidays. For the past two weeks, I kept trying to get in front of a screen to write a post, but with Christmas gifts like Pandemic and Star Trek Catan as well as a family trip, it obviously didn’t happen. Fun was had by all and the break, I think, was a good thing. Now, back to work.

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