“I am a book today. Smart, with information in my pages. Look me up, I’ll have it. Pages and pages of information, non-fiction and biographies and history. I know it all, I know it all.”
“Think about how many phone numbers you know by heart,” says Samuel J. Gershman, assistant professor and neurological researcher in the Department of Psychology. “People who are old enough to remember the days before cell phones can remember that they used to know a lot more phone numbers. Why is it that when you retrieve a memory, it seems to become malleable in a certain kind of way? It seems to become open to modification.”
Gershman thinks that the development of writing allowed for the creation of new kinds of narrative structures that changed our conceptual organization throughout human history. “Epics like the ‘Iliad’ and the ‘Odyssey’—people were reciting these epics long before they were written down. So how do they remember these huge amounts of verbal material?”
“When I’m in my shelf, I’m off to sleep.”
“I knew that it was a home away from home. An aroma of turkey filled the air. With my fingers indulged in the dog’s soft, warm fur, I felt grand. There, stroking this beautiful animal, I felt like I was on top of the world.”
Exactly 10 years later, my uncle resurfaces from his drink—a small bottle of whiskey that he insists sounds a lot better as “aged four years” than “from 2014”—and, with a sideways glance, remarks that this is the last year the dog is going to make an appearance; both the dog and my uncle have been howling in pain for the past 30 minutes. The two of them, much like the mashed potatoes and my family’s attempt to revitalize a pleasanter past, are overcooked.
“I heard light chuckling from the kitchen. I tiptoed down the hallway only to notice that it was my mom and my aunt talking. They prepared knives, forks, spoons, bowls, and plates and placed them gently on the tablecloth and straightened the cushions on the chairs. They set the silverware on the table in a symmetrical pattern.”
Several familiar faces have disappeared from the table since then, some succumbing to the sweet embrace of death, some to celibacy. But much like how the intruding tongue fills the gap of a lost tooth, new replacements find their way in, as if my determined family just couldn’t tolerate even the slightest shrinkage in size. I like to imagine that everyone at the table is desperately waiting to be replaced, waiting to find a more fulfilling job at some other company.
“After a wave of ‘Hi, hello,’ they came to the room where I was sitting. My cousin looked at me like he hadn’t seen me in a decade.”
My cousin extends his hand across the table, his jacket sleeve nearly swimming in a gravy boat. “I don’t think I’ve spoken to you yet today. I’ve read your articles in The Crimson,” he says.
“Well thank you, I think you’re just about the only one,” I say.
“I’ve been following that introspective, retrospective thing you’ve been writing. I think it’s important to think that way. I appreciate that.”
“The food was extraordinary. The dinner was peaceful and humorous at the same time. We all shared our laughs, and then we went home. I just lay there in my bed and close my eyes. What a day that was.”
“Getting my bass: a timeline”
With each new school year, the teachers always seemed to conjure some unique approach that aimed to simplify any writing assignment under the sun into a set list of tasks. No assignment—from essays to journal entries, reading responses to papers—was spared this fate of refinement and reduction. In fourth grade, that solution was “dots”. Step one—write an entire journal entry (preferably poorly):
“When I walked into the building, it was a nice, refreshing place. There were broken violins, trumpets, and trombones hanging on the wall. A nice man walked over to us and showed us all the parts of the bass, what they do, and how to fix them if they ever become broken.”
Step two—chop that journal entry into parsed morsels that sound like a linguist’s case study of a parrot:
“I went into the car (a dot). I was all excited (a dot). We parked in the parking lot (a dot). I walked to the place (a dot). I went inside (a dot). A man walked over (a dot). He explained the parts (a dot). We…”
Step three—elaborate each dot in its own designated segment:
“Once I got home, I went upstairs, bursting with excitement. I was so eager to play the bass. Here it goes—beereeekooraah. I… sounded… awful. But that’s why I have to practice.”
My writer’s notebook from fourth grade is filled with other cheap schematics that sound like they were gleaned from 900-numbers; one page is filled with a “Writer’s Web”, a pedigree chart of the attendees of the Senzer Thanksgiving Extravaganza 2007, extending all the way from my late grandfather down to my uncle’s not-late-enough dog. Another page contains an “Essay Sandwich” constructed from intro/conclusion buns and a mystery meat of thesis statements and evidence. My journal entries from this period of my life, much like my memories of the events that begot them, are written and unwritten several times through, jigsawed into interlocking pieces in a puzzle that the reader, 10 years later, never asked to solve. The rationale behind chunking our thoughts and memories, I’m sure, was to make our writing more coherent and allow our thoughts to flow more easily. The result, however, is that I can’t think of the past in any way other than the schematics lend. My memories are themselves dots, some pointillist fantasy designed to look like something only from five-and-a-half feet away.
When I read these old entries—tales from the dinner table, essays on graphite, letters about math tests, trips into the imagination, and indeed, the very first time I wrote the letter ‘A’—what’s funny is that I remember the physical act of writing these stories down more than the memories the stories are meant to portray. I remember where my desk was situated in the classroom every year of elementary school. I remember how the rubber grip felt in between my thumb and forefinger when I was learning how to hold a pencil. I remember the buzz that travelled up my spine when I came up with what I thought was a really great metaphor at the time. But I can only remember my life insofar as my past self decides to open a notebook and write about it. I am a book today.
“It’s not so much that writing per se affects memory,” Gershman says, “although in a simple way, you don’t remember things that you don’t need to remember because you’ve written them down.”
“Writing is whatever you want: the shape, the color, the size the font. Your writing will sing a joyous song; the words you hire, the words you admire and desire, are never wrong. Now you have a perfect piece, so sing it to the stars, your dog—everything, at the least. Soon your talent will roam free, a famous writer you have come to be.”