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.

Tools for Writing

It’s been a tough couple of weeks writing-wise. Halloween is a banner holiday around here and requires a fair amount of crafting and preparation. As I continue to squeeze writing into the nooks and crannies of my day I am paying special attention to tweaking my process so that I can be as productive as possible with the time that I have. And imma gonna blog about that soon, but today I’d rather talk about some of the various tools, apps and gizmos I  use to write.

I’ve always been a stationary store geek. There are cups of pens and pencils all over the house and pads of sticky notes secreted everywhere. Then there is my own *special* cup of pens, pencils and highlighters. While not under lock and key, I am very protective of it and whenever I spot one of my writing implements next to hubby’s crossword puzzle I switch it out of a normal pencil while muttering quietly to myself… But clearly that’s fetish territory. For practical purposes, I take a maximumilist approach and will write anywhere with any implement that comes to hand including pen, pencil, crayon, public terminal on the cloud, laptop, phone (Android), or iPod Touch. I believe you should work wherever you can whenever you can with what ever comes to hand.

Just because I’m willing to write with a sawed off crayon doesn’t mean I don’t have my favorites. Here are some of the tools I use:


For daily freewriting. I’ve been pursuing the practice of daily freewriting and it was getting gummed up because, I’ve come to believe, I was doing it wrong. I was trying to accomplish too much with it. I would try to get the next words of my work in progress out or suss out new ideas or work out a revision kink. But true freewriting wants to be – free. So for my daily ten minutes of true freewriting I’ve moved it out of my journal and switched to loose leaf paper. This writing is a warm up and a place where I write without stopping about anything, without a plan. Mostly it’s nonsense and loose leaf pages are easily tossed into the recycle bin. Of course if I happen to blurt out a gem during a session I can always transcribe it into a document or my journal.


I have these little pads at work, all around the house and in the car. This is for noting random thoughts, ideas and inspirations, some people go old school and use 3×5 cards for this sort of thing (e.g. Annie Lamott) but I like sticky notes because they are, you know, sticky. If I’m busy I can gather them up and just stick them on a page in my journal for later integration/transcription.


This is home base for most of my working stories, notes, research, outlines, freewritten drafts, ideas, quotes. I also try write down my dreams in the morning using a different color ink. I try to put something in my journal every day. I read through it a couple times a month for useful bits and to update the index/table of contents that I keep in the first pages. I’m a visual thinker and while I don’t spend a lot of time “arting” my journal up, I do keep a bottle of rubber cement so that I can glue images that I find or print out into the pages.


The electronic home for my work. I’ll compose stories from my journal notes, or do directed freewriting on the keyboard. I keep everything backed up on DropBox so that I can access it from my work computer if I should happen to get an extra few minutes there. I also use Google Drive for some drafts and projects. For random notes, ideas and web research there’s Evernote. I don’t pay for any of this as I’m well below their bandwidth limits. Once I finish a story I delete most of the research files and any online drafts. I usually save a couple print outs with my scribbled hand revisions for posterity. That’s the beauty of research for fiction. I’m not out to prove anything — just trying to juice my brain, so I don’t need footnotes.

I just bought Scrivener and have started to use some of the writerly features for my longer short stories. I’m going to be using it to write my novel come January. I’ll post down the road after I’ve given it a real test drive. When I am out and about and feel like noting something down with my thumbs, which is my least favorite mode of writing, a fact that just makes me feel old. I use iAwriter on my iPod, which is very straightforward, with biggish buttons and synchs nicely.

So much to write and so many ways to do it. Fun!