Architecture of Memory

What luck! Scribe Saturday is today and just one day after my post about goals. So I’m doing well on my goal of two blog posts per week for the summer.

Today’s topic is again inspired by a story from my mother. I have other family members, I promise, but a lot of my memorable things are with the matriarch. Mom sometimes disputes a memory that I have and then is forced to admit that I have a better memory. It’s true that she’s kind of infamous for forgetting plot points or not picking up on clues in a movie, but this is about more general principles of keeping record.

I am the sort of person who can tell you a very specific story about an event because of the things I associate with it. If you want to know when I played the violin solo for the Bach Brandenburg Concerto No. 5, I will tell you that it was December 5, 1993. No, I didn’t memorize the date. I remember that I had to play that concert on my best friend’s birthday, that it was 9 days after my 13th birthday. I know where i was sitting because our concertmaster had just moved back to Japan and I had been promoted to his position, which is why I was the soloist for the Brandenburg.

In another story, I can tell you what day my grandmother’s funeral was on. It was the day before Mom’s birthday, which was awful because Grandma Nelson was on Mom’s side of the family. I also remember that I brought Mom’s birthday present in a gift bag because I knew she wouldn’t be in the mood for a birthday party, but I wanted to make sure I gave her the book of Beethoven piano duets when she was ready to open her presents for that year.

I call this sort of thing the Architecture of Memory. It’s how I build an entire recollection based on a date, a place, or an object. In the funeral story, it could be about that book of piano duets or the funeral or what happened that year just before Mom’s birthday. With the concerto, there’s actually something else that happened on that night that I will not divulge here, but I can tell you exactly when that happened because it was half an hour after I got home from playing the Brandenburg Concerto No. 5 on my best friend’s 13th birthday.

So, how do you use this in storytelling? Level of detail in a setting can tell a lot about the importance of the scene or the character of the person narrating.

When entering a scene that will be revisited on a number of levels, different aspects of that setting in each scene will give hints to things within the scene. Robert Galbraith does this very effectively with the office on Denmark Street in the Cormoran Strike novels. Different characters notice the music reverberating through the floorboards from the 12 Bar Cafe. Others have different reactions to a decrepit sofa. In another crime story setting, the TV show Sherlock sets the protagonists in an apartment full of disorder. Certain episodes allow you to notice art on the walls or decorations that set the tone for the episode. I, for one, never paid attention to a wall art that looks to be a skull, but is actually a set of photographs that create that impression.

When deciding what to mention as a building block of a scene, think of the scene as something the person is remembering years later. Will they say “I met James on the first sunny day after Christmas” or something similar? Will they remember that when they went into their parents’ house, they could tell no one had taken out the garbage in a while? Will they know that they met their new boss on the 5th of November because they had just made a Guy Fawkes reference?

Another thing to contemplate is whether or not these kinds of details are appropriate to that event or if it’s peculiar that it happened on that day. One of my favorite personal stories is the April Fool’s Day blizzard where it was 60 degrees in the morning and by the time I got home, it was snowing so hard that we couldn’t leave the house for several days and school was canceled for a week. I don’t remember what shorts or t-shirt I was wearing, but for me, that’s what 60-degree weather demanded and by the end of that day, I was in a borrowed pair of grey sweatpants and a red sweater because my viola teacher refused to let me play my lesson while completely drenched. It was a switch in circumstances that I could not have predicted because, yes, it snows quite late in Massachusetts, but it usually gives more warning.

Finally, think about things that can be a small focusing point. One of my favorite of this kind of detail is in The Great Gatsby. Nick Carroway, the narrator, observes two people who are plotting to frame another for vehicular manslaughter while casually eating cold fried chicken. This is a mental image that sticks with me. So is the maple tree that I was walking under when I told my sister that I was in an abusive relationship and needed to leave my home for a while. So is the dry cereal I ate while talking about my escalating problems with depression with my parents on July 5, 2000.

As an exercise, try telling a story from your own life focusing each time on a date, an object, or an experience.

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