Saturday, November 10, 2007

Distortions of Memory

So today, I went to a roundtable at the Philoctetes Center on Distortions of Memory. And the picture on the left is apropos because I wore absolutely no make-up (okay I did throw on a little lipstick). I wore a short skirt, however, despite the fact that it is freezing cold outside. Why you might ask did I risk my health? Like Jennifer Lopez has her booty, I have a kick ass pair of legs and while they are still holding up, I like to show them off (yes, I am that vain). Hence why I now have a incipient head cold. Oh, I also had the embarassing moment of cutie pie author pointing out someone to me who came to the roundtable, as if I should know who they were. Which I didn't. I felt like a complete moron, but then I remembered that if Suzanne Brockmann or Meg Cabot had been in the vicinity, he wouldn't have known who they were either. So it all balanced out.

Anyway, where was I? Oh yes, Distortions of Memory. Very interesting topic and we could have talked for hours about it. The panel went through the various kinds of memory, declarative, semantic, episodic, visual, procedural, and others and some of what they were talking about went completely over my head, but I'm used to that by now, whenever I go to these roundtables. But the panel was incredibly interesting. Deirdre Blair has written biographies of Anais Nin and Simone de Beauvoir (both potential Scandalous Women along with Ayn Rand), and it was interesting to hear her talk about going through Samuel Beckett's letters and having to deconstruct what was actually the truth about his feelings about Ireland before he left it for Paris. It reminded me of this author Cupcake Brown, who not only interviewed her friends, family and colleagues to their side of the story for her memoir, but hired a private detective to coorborate her memories for the book.

Since so much was going on, I'm just going to kind of filter what they were talking about through my own take on the subject, and what I was thinking about as they talked. The first thing that came to my mind when one of the audience members was talking about how memories aren't tangible, you can't hold them in your hand, or touch them. They just exist inside your head. It made me think of the scenes in the Harry Potter books when Dumbledore would use the pensieve to show Harry his memories. I remember reading those things and thinking how great it would be to be able to just pull your memories out of your head and put them in a bowl so that others could also experience them first hand. Of course, as Harry later figured out, how much of those memories would be the actual truth? This is kind of a spoiler alert but later on Harry gets to see Snape's memories and he gets a different truth, which made him look at his parents in a different

Maryse Conde talked about the different images of Guadaloupe that existed in people's memories. The memories that the tourists who come to the Island have, and then the memories and experiences of the people who live there. I was reminded of the first time I went to New Orleans. Ex-sweetie pie and I had newly declared our love, and it was our first vacation together. So my view and experience and memories of New Orleans were seen through the prism of that emotion, even after we went our seperate ways. Even having one of the worst dinners of my life at Antoine's, so that ex-sweetie pie could fulfill his wish of eating in the same room that Jack Lemmon and Kevin Costner did in JFK didn't diminish my joy. Although I was kind of a bitch at the time about it (the food was seriously awful), he really wanted to have that memory. It was important to him.

My second trip was for the RWA National Conference. This time, without the haze of new love blinding me, I was able to clearly see the poverty and the shabbiness of the city clearly. Walking through the French Quarter early in the morning before it got unbearably hot to go to Cafe Dumonde, and seeing the dirty cups and vomit lining the streets from the debauchery of the night before, gave me whole new memories, that were no less valid than my earlier ones. They were just different but I remember thinking at the time, how could I have been so wrong? How could I have missed all this? It all of a sudden occurred to me, that if you travel somewhere and you have a bad experience, like finding out that a relative has died back home, that memory can completely color your feelings toward that place, to the point that the idea of ever going back there, is painful.

When I was in college studying acting, we learned about sense memory which is a technique that Konstantin Stanislavsky came up with (although later on he had different thoughts about it) and that Lee Strasberg and the Actor's Studio honed. The head of the drama department had been a member of the Studio. In sense memory, you use your own memories to when playing a character, sort of as another layer. My freshman year, we spent at least a month taking turns sitting in chairs in front of our classmates, reliving memories. Some people were really self-indulgent and started reliving car accidents, surgeries and other traumatic experiences. It was uncomfortable as hell to watch.

At the time, I really hated sense memory, to be blunt I thought it was bullshit. I felt that it placed a barrier between the actor and the character. Instead of dealing with the emotions of what they were dealing with, I thought that it was treating acting like therapy. Plus it's really hard to sustain through a long theatrical run. For film, it can work like gang-busters. But when you're performing night after night, after awhile the memories fade, they're not that strong anymore. So you're forced to dig into your bag of tricks for other memories. Or, you can take it too far and you can end up like Daniel Day Lewis did while performing Hamlet in London, where he ended up thinking that the ghost of Hamlet's father was his own father Cecil Day Lewis. It was so traumatic for him, that he couldn't finish the rest of the performance and Jeremy Northam, his understudy had to go on. I only used sense memory once, when I was playing Perdita in The Winter's Tale. In the final act, a statue of Perdita's mother Hermione is unveiled, so I used the memories of when my mother had passed on for Perdita, which was a mistake because I was still too close to it. I never used a personal memory again while I was acting.

When they were talking about distorted memory, it reminded me of all the times my mother would share her memories of when from when I was a toddler. She told them so often, that I could actually see the memory in my mind to the point that I actually believed that I remembered. One of her stories was about how I hated wearing pants (still do) and I would take them off in the elevator when we got home. I can just see myself doing that. And she told another story of how once when they took me to a restaurant, the maitre d' picked me up and carried me around because he thought I was so cute (yes, even as a toddler I was an attention seeking egomaniac!). These stories have so become a part of my history, that sometimes I find myself relating them as if I actually remembered it happening.

And then there are the distorted memories in relationships. Just think of the times, you've been infatuated with someone, and every little thing that they do, whether it's opening the door for you, or brushing against you, become part of your memory as signs that this person has feelings for you. And if you're lucky and the person gets hit with a clue bat and you end up together and they become part of your collective memories as a couple, "Hey honey remember how you used to blow me off constantly, and the time you never even bothered to ask me how my birthday went?"

They briefly touched on repressed memory and recovered memory, but it would take a whole session to discuss that alone. About a decade ago there was a story in the news of a woman who during therapy remembered that her father had killed her best friend. She apparently had surpressed the memory. What was interesting was that her father was convicted because of her testimony, even though there was no real physical evidence to tie him to the crime.

As a writer, I've often used my memories in my fiction. Bad dates, bad auditions, and other memories have been given to my characters. Sometimes even other people's memories have ended up in the mix. We're often told to write what we know, and that is our memories and experiences. Of course, there are some writers who shall remain nameless because we all know who he is, who use other people's memories in non-fiction and then claim them as their own.

Or in the case of Lillian Helman, the story of Julia in Pentimento, which was later proved not to be true, but I think in her mind, she'd told the story so many times after the book was published and the movie came out, that she believed that it actually happened. Or Lola Montez, who created a life out of whole cloth, and refused to the end to admit that it was fiction. That she was not Lola Montez, but Eliza Gilbert from Ireland.

All memory, when you come right down to it, is emotion really, happy, sad, angry, indifferent. Memories can comfort you, or they can be so painful that you have to keep them hidden away in a safe place. Like the song says, "Memories like the corners of my mind, misty water colored memories, of the way we were."

Thanks for reading!


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