Memory & Imagination

Gerard Woodward

Author and tutor at Bath Spa University

Creative Writing Dept.

20 September 2005

This was a non-academic talk by a creative writer,

short listed for the Whitbread prize 2001 for August

and runner up to the Man Booker prize 2004 for I’ll Go to Bed at Noon.

The speaker compared documentary writing with that from memory and imagination. Factual writing from memory was not necessarily accurate, as historians know. We cannot control what is remembered, or be sure of the veracity of the past information. Nor can we control what is forgotten.

He said that writing about ones own experiences and putting them in the public arena could be an exorcism of self-psychotherapy.

What happens to the writer? Does he change? Is he relieved of the burden of experience? When the reader experiences the author, does he take on that burden and change himself?

The Speaker now asked the audience, (as he did his students), to think of a metaphor for memory. He then gave some examples, such as, a wax tablet, a filing cabinet, time capsule, old diaries, books and family photographs of the past in a library. Others mentioned included, looking at old negatives or transparencies. A birdcage with birds flying out and a mechanical piano.

This storehouse of memories remained coded in the brain and latent until engaged by the subject. They could be recalled by sights, sounds or particularly smells and other associations.

Gerard Woodward observed that conventional exams only test memory, not creativity. He then discussed historical speculations about the nature of memory.

Memories were once thought to be associated with Phosphorus as it gave off light, thus the origin of the term ‘flashes of memory’.

When it came to science, where metaphors or analogies were frequently used to explain things both in the past and now, Samuel Parker FRS described ‘the horrors’ of metaphors in Science as ‘Wanton and luxuriant fancies that climb into the bed of reason defiling it with unchaste and illegitimate embraces, so that instead of real conceptions and notices of things, impregnate the mind with nothing but airy and subventanious phantasms’. Before Hook’s time memory was thought to be atomised and spiritual rather than scientifically based. Hook estimated about 2 million memories were picked up in a lifetime, but with later research it was thought to be more like 2 billion. Ebbinghouse tried to remember meaningless words with no associations. He worked out a forgetting curve, steep at first then flattening out. Memory depends on patterns and associations not individual words.

In 1839 the camera, and in 1877 the phonograph captured visual and auditory memories in a form that could be revisited at will.

The speaker pointed out that Einstein, who brought about a truly creative scientific revolution, required the imagination to visualise a different future world before it was proved a reality experimentally. This also involved iconoclasm of conventional Newtonian Physics of the past. Einstein’s view extended to imagining what it would be like to ride on a photon.

In contrast, in the Middle Ages, St Thomas Aquinas had, no notes to turn to and was dependant entirely on memory and mnemonics.

Today memory is valued less as it has become so much assisted by the artificial memories of calculators and computers and as a result, creativity and lateral thinking are now more valued.

In 1950 the computer became the dominant metaphor and instrument of memory. This was rectilinear and rational unlike the brain, which is distorted and influenced by synchronic stimulation such as hormones. Human memories are neither fallible nor accurate. They are a mosaic warped by intuition and the prevailing mood. Nor can memories be summoned at will, but only by association and they fade with time. True memories can be, and often are replaced by an inaccurate substitute. For this reason they are more easily moulded to form the basis of the imagination.

Computers are infallible, accurate and never forget. This is the computational paradox. In humans immediate and long term memories behave differently. As we get older long-term memories are preserved but the facility for short-term memory declines.

Ted Hughes destroyed Sylvia Plath’s last diaries, ostensibly to prevent their children from reading it, but he probably had personal reasons for this violent act of annihilation.

The speaker then gave as a fictional account of ‘total memory syndrome’, Borge’s ‘Funes The Memorious’ set in Fray Bentos, Uruguay. In this, following a riding accident, the subject, instead of losing his memory, loses the capacity to forget. As a result he remembers all his dreams, sees names for numbers, remembers every leaf of every tree, and sees his own image in the mirror every day as if it was for the first time.

The speaker then applied a technique he used on his students. Can you remember the face of your first teacher? Bearing in mind he was now speaking to a generation older, it was hardly surprising that very few could remember their first teacher at all. Speaking for himself he said he had only a vague memory. He remembered, her round face had pockmarks; she had black hair, thick glasses, but no detailed memory of her remained. Although there were no details he still had a faded coded memory of her.

Gerard Woodward now related one of his own short stories based on childhood experience, to illustrate the inaccuracy of memory and how it is exploited by the imagination.

A little boy is asked to take the greengrocers daughter to school, to see that she crosses the road safely. Being young the boy is shy of holding her hand, and never speaks. The greengrocer pays him, in oranges for accompanying his daughter. One day the girl tricks him into dropping her off at her home, where she watches TV, instead of going to the shop where her father is. When her father finds out he dismisses the boy as unreliable, and as a result he loses his oranges.

This story is based on Gerard Woodward’s own childhood experience as the boy in question. When he becomes an adult he thinks he could remember the girl’s face and that she was Greek, but when shown a photograph of the actual girl he realises his memory is of another Greek girl he knew. He has replaced it with another, probably because of the bad association of being deceived by the real girl. He compared this with going to borrow a book from the library and finding the book he wants is not there, so he takes the next one to it on the same subject or by the same author instead. In dreams also there can be a substitution for an unbearable truth, such as a person of another sex or an animal or even an object.


The topics that were raised in discussion included:

The importance of forgetting and its use in survival.
Depression, as the uncontrolled repetition of bad memory.
The strategy of intellectual avoidance used to bypass memory
The creation of the calculated accident to defy reality and create new forms.
Post traumatic stress disorder due to inability to forget and its offloading by therapy.
Absurdity, as a creative technique used to emancipate the writer from reality.
The convenor reminded the audience that Gerard Woodward’s two books, August and I’ll Go to Bed At Noon although fictional were based on the realism of his own family and his memories of them. Although with an underlying serious message they were full of humour and brilliant dialogue, and that he was at present working on the third book of this Trilogy due for publication next year.

Rex Valentine.