“Long ago, it must be, I have a photograph
Preserve your memories, they’re all that’s left of you.” – Simon and Garfunkel
On a day when someone very close to me is bringing a long chapter of their life to an end, I’ve been looking back over the stories I’ve written, and found a few common themes that I seem to play with constantly. But one in particular stands out – the impermanence of memories.
Perhaps it’s because I’m inherently a nostalgic person and enjoy the self-inflicted melancholy that comes with looking through childhood photos and/or recalling past times that are now long ago. Perhaps it’s down to a fascination with the way memories are processed and stored and how that affects one’s relationship with time (I have several unwritten story ideas about the perception of personal time). But I think it’s mainly to do with how memories are obliterated by time and we automatically fill the gaps, creating new, altered or even false memories; colouring the memories with emotions that have changed over the years, and so mutating those memories into new things, partly-fictionalised, self-edited.
The sorting process that goes on – namely, dreams – stirs everything up, dredging up old remembrances long buried. It opens up old files; removes the bookends so we can see what is contained within, however old and dusty, but the act of looking (in a quantum theoretical way) changes what you are seeing, because you are always looking with new eyes, with a new perspective coloured by the intervening time since you last looked.
This ‘bookending’ of time is a way I’ve often looked at specific eras in time, like holidays, school, university, particular places I’ve lived. These days I’m so much more aware of that bookending taking place as that era draws to a close. I’m sure this is not a new observation, but I wonder if the modern world’s obsession with seeing time in snapshots and storing it in files and albums doesn’t contribute to this process, and would the ordering and perception of memories have been any different before the advent of photography?
All of which leads me to my current story idea, “The Last Photograph”. It’s an idea I’ve been playing with for a couple of months, and even have a page of writing that I battered out in a sudden fit one night in July. As I thought of it, it occurred to me that I’m always writing about memories, or the lack of them, or the misinterpretation of them, or their slippery, dubious nature. Philip K Dick used that theme a lot, to wonderfully surreal and terrifying effect, and I can’t deny it has a huge bearing on what I’m writing, but it’s only now when I look back that I realise how (even without consciously applying it) that theme emerges from pretty much everything I write.
Now, as one huge era of time for that person close to me ends and is filed away, shrinking and seeming small as it slots into the past, a new one opens up and I stand on the beach looking out at it with expectation.
Photographs can bring back a feeling, but only ever capture such a tiny sliver of a moment, like a frozen skin peeled off and preserved. Any attempt to preserve a memory changes it, whether it be a photo, or writing it down (in which case the writer immediately colours it with their own perception and effectively fictionalises/dramatises it), or capturing it on video (which causes the people in the video to behave differently if they are aware of being filmed, or if they are unaware it accentuates the feeling of it being someone else’s perception of the moment).
This is the particular obsession of a writer, using those moments in collage to create fiction; stirring them around and combining them in much the way we do when dreaming. Was it William Gibson who called it ‘dreaming in public’? And dreams are something I can talk about at great length.