Monday Writing Motivation: The persistence of memory

 In Monday Motivation, Richard Beynon's blog

I am fascinated by memory because it is at once so precise and so vague. I am astonished that our brains hold within them the minutiae of events and incidents – sometimes by any measure inconsequential – that occurred years and decades ago.

Of course, sometimes we know, as something happens – the planes smashing into the twin towers, say – that those images will remain with us forever. Sometimes we realise that we will even remember the contextual details – the fact that we were sitting in such and such a chair as we watching the horror unfolding on a television screen  – and sometimes we imagine that we will remember something of historical importance that later for reasons we cannot fathom simply evaporates from memory.

But however unpredictable our memories, and how imperfect they are, they are constantly with us. I’m not sure whether any research has been done to substantiate this contention, but it seems incontrovertible to me that we dodge in and out of memories all day long.

Monday Writing Motivation: The persistence of memory

Sitting on the bus bringing us over the long bridge into Venice – yes, we’ve arrived for our annual writing retreat!* – I look out over the great lagoon. In the hazy distance, the spires and towers of the ancient city rise. My mind is instantly cast back over the years and memory comes flooding in: the vaporetto journey out to Torcello, site of a seventh century Byzantine basilica; much more recently, the vivid, disturbing retrospective exhibition of the South African-born artist, Marlene Dumas; sitting on the fondamenta of Giudecca at sunset with Trish, sipping a Campari spritz and eating cicchetti

And of course, the memory of a thousand bells ringing out over the city many times each day.

Memory is a dimension of our lives that we dip into repeatedly, many times every day. I was reminded of this when I listened a few afternoons ago to an interview with Zadie Smith about her new book**. The Fraud skips about chronologically, and the interviewer asked her about her own experience of time.

“I distrust narratives that flatten (time) out,” she said. “Narratives that tell you that people experience their lives in this very rational, chronological way, because I just really don’t think they do. I think people are overwhelmed by their memories all the time. A certain smell can set you off or someone in the street who looks like someone you knew 20 years ago… There’s all this mess with time in your mind as you move through your life. That’s been my experience: knowing exactly the age I am, but constantly being struck by memories of other times.”

That’s how we, humans, experience our reality – and so it follows that that’s the way our characters experience their realities. Which is why we should always remember to give our characters memories that relate both to the story – and beyond it.

And because you are in complete control of your characters, you can give them memories that reveal hidden or even secret aspects of their personalities, their agendas, their guilt. Memories constitute yet another layer of meaning and nuance.

I say that our days are peppered with memories. Actually, I think you can go further and argue that we are made of memories. As each passing moment recedes like a slow moving train into the immediate and then the more distant past, so memories of those moments make up the core of our ever shifting, ever evolving identity.

Happy writing,


* Wish you were with us! How about joining us in 2024? We’re discussing dates with Ca’ della Corte. Email Trish to put your name down in the meantime.

** The podcast is called “Zadie Smith on her new historical novel”. You’ll find it on The Book Review on the New York Times site.

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Monday Writing Motivation: Drama lives between the now and the then