Wednesday, June 06, 2007

Memories and forgetting

I am doing a busman's holiday sort of thing by reading a book of interviews with travel writers, A SENSE OF PLACE from the San Francisco publisher Travelers Tales is a collection of interviews with well known travel writers. I spend many days at work transcribing interviews -- that's all I've transcribed for the last ten days! But I never get tired of listening to people answer questions. Last night I read an interview with Jonathan Raban, who said, "I spend most of my time forgetting rather than remembering until I can write..." [about whatever subject] This came after a discussion of Graham Green having written about a trip in Liberia where he took no notes [or so he said] and comparing that book to one written by his cousin Barbara who accompanied him [and took no notes, so she said] And the two books sound like they were in entirely different places at different times and situations. I've read Barbara's book and enjoyed it.

Raban also speaks of the times when writers can recreate conversations perhaps months or years after the fact, not having recorded them. He says, "writing in a state of almost traancelike memoriousness you are able to recapture things that you ought, by all the sort of normal laws of memory physics, to have forgotten. But somehow the very slowness of the writing brings those words back." Reading about this yesterday was one of those synchronous events for I had just read an article in the NY TImes Science Section about the brain's need to forget the peripheral junk in order to remember what is important -- duh! Someone somewhere had to use an MRI and set up complex words tests and enlist some students to spend an afternoon proving what a writer could have told them, not just now, but probably any time since people have been writing their memories.

I think Raban goes well beyond the scientists. He was particularly speaking of recapturing a conversation he had had with the poet Philip Larkin, someone he greatly admired. No doubt when with Mr. Larkin Raban was alert and concentrated in a way that one is not when, say, walking down a supermarket aisle. He cared very much about their conversation, perhaps he played various parts of over in his mind for some days afterward as we're likely to do after seeing someone we admire and having a rare conversation with that person. When he sat down to write, he probablly didn't have the verbatim transcript I would transcribe from a tape in my job, but he had all the important parts and went, as he says into a trancelike state which is a mental state every writer knows and experiences when in concentration, whether writing about a real event or creating a fictional one where, as very often writers report, the characters speak and say surprising, but appropriate, in character things. I read all the articles I come across about how the mind works. It never ceases to fascinate me.

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