Saturday, November 14, 2009

Memory Squeaks

I was listening to Rick Kleffel's interview with E.L. Doctorow on our local radio station last week, and one thing Doctorow said particularly stood out to me. It struck me because I remembered Nabokov saying something quite similar in Speak, Memory. Both writers said essentially that using incidents in their own memory might have been helpful in their fiction, but that it had the curious effect of making that particular memory less rich and vivid to them forever after.

That's a bit discouraging, isn't it? We all know that memory can go, of course, but I suspect that we mostly assume it's in tact up until whatever disease or aging process kicks in and has its way with us. When I read Nabokov's comment, I noticed it, but I also partially dismissed it, as being largely about his own highly idiosyncratic mind. For Doctorow to say much the same makes me wonder if too much focus does in fact have a leaching process on memory. Both writers, as it happens, are talking about a very particular process of taking personal memory and in effect giving it to a fictional character.

I don't have a lot to add about all this. It could be just them, or it could be a wider principle at work. What I've noticed in my own telling of anecdotes is that, quite often, something will happen and it will seem worth mentioning to someone. If I choose the right person, chances are good that the tale will be a success, that in effect, I'll have 'nailed it'. But something about the repetition of the story has a negative effect. It wears thin, the accent is put on the wrong note, so to speak. It often works well on a second or third try, but after that, I believe it begins to sound a bit rote even to me, and people begin to wonder what the point was.

Now obviously, this can't be true for everyone. Professional comedians depend on being able to tell their old jokes fresh in a reliable sort of way. And actors in a hit show? How do they keep the thing fresh?

But anyway, I'm curious if this sort of wearing out of material rings true for anyone else. Or if anyone knows some sort of biochemical or even psychological reason why this should be so.

In any case, feel free to post.