5 Lessons Human Memory Teaches the Storyteller

NYC Skyline pre-9.11.2001Quick:

What do you remember about March 7, 2005?

What do you remember about September 11, 2001?

Now, for all I know, you were a teenager giving birth on March 7, 2005. Or, like someone I know, you lost your spouse of sixty years on 9/11/01, and that’s what you remember. But if you are like me, nothing special happened on March 7, 1995, and you don’t remember it at all. Whereas on a day, some years earlier, everything seemed to be changing, and you remember where you were, what you were doing, who you called, what you did next . . . unless you were so traumatized that you’ve blocked major portions of your day. Memory is a storyteller. Or perhaps it would make more sense to say that stories are patterned after the human mind and soul, which is to say, the human memory.

What can the storyteller learn from human memory?

1) Not all events are equal. Not everything is part of the story just because it happened, too, just as not all the marble in the block became part of Michaelangelo’s David.

2) Details become very important when life is in crisis. The memory zeros in on the physical world. (See #4)

3) Build up, backstory and filling in the in between stuff are NOT important: jump cuts are part of human memory and serve story well.

4) Actions reveal character. You are fascinated by what you and everyone else did. Interior monologue is largely left out of memory. What you wore, who you touched, where you went–these are what stick and carry all the meaning.

5) Change–or the enormous and powerful possibility of change–are at the heart of memory and story.

Story and memory are the heightened bits, repressed or vivid, that move us to peer closely or to turn away. Everything else is just another day.

Authenticity note: I was living at 12th Street and Avenue A in the LES on Sept. 11, 2001 and teaching at Pratt in Brooklyn that morning.

What will you always remember? What have you learned from memory?

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  1. thanks – you rock!

  2. Thanks, Amy. 🙂 You, too! I am excited to welcome you back into the Book Writing Cycle to finish your novel!


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