The Opiate Of Memory

A couple of weeks ago, I attended one of the monthly workshops run by the Scottish Poetry Library. The previous month we had spoken about how effective the evocation of tastes and smells can be in poetry, so for this session our leader had brought along a thin metal case full of small sample vials of Penhaligon’s scents. We were each invited to take a vial, smell the scent, and let it guide our production.

[Aside — it doesn't work]
Bonus scratch’n’sniff — it really works!

This was a great prompt. One of the enjoyable things about this workshop (like Lost Lit in Brooklyn), is that the prompts are so good, I find myself writing something, thinking — Oh, this is good. This is going to be one of the best pieces of work tonight — and then finding that everyone else has produced something at least as good.

American girls love the UK
McKayla’s very happy your poem’s so good.

I think we’re all aware of the power of the sense of smell; the effect of the whiff of a lover’s perfume in the street, for example. The scent I selected evoked a number of memories; of times past, present and future. All these different feelings could be diced, shuffled, and reassembled to construct a new memory, like Jean-Baptiste Grenouille synthesizing the perfume of a long-lost girl.

Still, the feelings in the poem were real. As with each of the other poems created by the group, we went around the table to solicit remarks. One women paused when asked to relate her reflections on Lady Slipper, thought, and declared, “I don’t know what to say.” I think the message she was kindly trying to convey, whether entirely true or not, was that the emotion of the poem was too intense to discuss. Too real. A poem really is a collaboration between the writer and the reader. How lovely of her to create such a nice thing.

Hold on! "Doggerel" rhymes with McGonegal, not "write"!
Alas! I must say, it pains me to write,
The poems of Brown are a load of old doggerel.

You might say that it’s a writerly trick, a manipulation or deception, to stitch together a  scene from a patchwork of memories from different time and places. But that would be wrong. In a way, that’s exactly what memory is in the first place.

I recently learned that, unlike what I remember from school, the states of matter are much more complicated than the certainties of solid, liquid and gas I was taught. Similarly,  Charles Fernyhough writes that “the popular perception of memory shows a considerable lag with the new scientific consensus.” Fernyhough, an English doctor of development psychology and author of (among other things) Pieces Of Light: The New Science Of Memory, notes in another piece that two large-scale surveys by the psychologists Daniel J. Simons and Christopher Chabris have shown that around one in two of us think that memory works like a video recorder.

God! Do I have to keep tellling you?!!!
Wait. Who are you again?

It doesn’t, thank goodness. Y’see, one of the effects of my brain haemorrhage (just to change the terminology up this week) has been a measurable decline in processing speed. And, being kinda rubbish at taking in information makes it harder to remember things in the  previously-accepted fashion.

Fortunately as Fernyhouse relates in the second of the articles above), there are strong links between imagination and memory. Memory isn’t just a question of point and click. In fact, evolutionary scientists posit that memory’s function may not be to keep track of the past, but to predict the future. Makes sense, when you think about it.

You're welcome.
Get a pen! It’s last week’s lottery numbers!

It turns out, Dr Fernyhough tells us, that “[w]e are all novelists [or poets]  when we are remembering.”

We start off with some sensory impressions of an event, along with factual knowledge about who we were then and what was going on for us. We put that information together in ways that reflect who we are now as well as who we were back then.

In other words, we “narrativise” ourselves. It seems to me that, armed with this knowledge, we can not only predict the future, but create new and better selves. This is what I have striven to do with the memory of my stroke; the story of a guy whose rampaging id was funny and grateful and tender.

Yeah. I know. A pretty big leap of imagination, right?

That's a nice tie. I'll be that guy.
Who do you want to be today?
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6 thoughts on “The Opiate Of Memory

  1. Interesting that you bring up smells as an evocative prompt. I often have my sense of smell “turned off”.

    I can be somewhere for a long stretch of time before I notice there’s a powerful fragrance (good or bad) in the air. Or I don’t notice until someone else mentions it and then I make a conscious decision to sniff. Smell just doesn’t really play a big role in my day-to-day life. BUT every once in a while I catch an aroma and go all deja-vu. Or deja-senti rather. (And yes, one of the small smattering of novels I have read in the original French was Proust’s Combray with its famous Madeleine scene.)

    My most successful writing workshop – and one I’ve run a few times – explores multi-sensory and synaesthetic writing. I make sure to work in a clip from Perfume: The Story of a Murderer, which you mention above.

    Also, I love the idea of fragrance vials as writing prompts. Filing it away for possible future use.

    1. Lot going on there.

      Interesting that your sense of smell should be muted in a locale where the sensation can change so markedly from block to block. Having grown up next to a harbour in a city where the smell of the brewery could dominate an afternoon, and vacationed as a child in a fishing town, I can’t help but feel you’re missing out. Or maybe that’s just me?

      I’ve probably discussed synesthesia in the blog before…? That always seems to be a topic that pricks up a writer’s ears. Mrs Stroke Bloke would suggest that the idea of this has stirred my best stuff.

      Each time I’ve worked with Jennifer, the prompts have been imaginative and effective. At the first session, the ideas were spurred by aspects of The Poetics Of Space.

  2. 1. Eating haloumi
    2. The smell of haloumi
    3. That time I ate haloumi
    4. My god, you mean that wasn’t haloumi? That time
    5. Needs more haloumi

  3. 1. I have some recollection of the first time I drank chocolate milk. I hold it as my first memory, but I can’t be sure if it is a true memory or an imposed recollection. Either way, that’s what pops into mind when I think of my first memory.
    2. I don’t have a particular favorite, but I do enjoy fresh baked goods and the smell as you walk past a LUSH (the shop).
    3. Lemons. The tart citrus takes me to the back deck at home in the states and the citronella candles keeping the mosquitos away.
    4. More often than I can commit to memory.
    5. I have to agree a bit with Fernyhough in that memories are predictors of the future. What’s the old adage… Those who forget history are doomed to repeat it? Thus, group memory progress change to avoid the mistakes of the past.

    1. Thanks, Myra! My first memory (true and/or imposed; I’m starting to wonder if it’s only a difference of emphasis) is of the first day of nursery/kindergarten(*). My mum and I in the car, the rain tipping it down. We gave a ride to a woman who would become a great friend of hers. Favourite smell’s perfume on a lover’s skin. A very specific perfume on a very specific lover. (Hi, Gorj!) The smell of the sea always transports me to Granton harbour or the Moray coast (see above), circa 1981. Or to Rhode Island, some time in the future. The (not so) surprising failure of memory came in October 2012, when I was asked why I thought I was in hospital. “Oh god…. Have I had another stroke?” “No. Just the one.” And an interesting reflection from Friendoftheblogandy: “…a vast majority of synthesis is not guided by the conscious mind….” I’ll have to ponder that.

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