Tag Archives: memory lane

The (Sort of) Persistence of Memory

My family knows me very well. I have always been quite open about both my emotions and opinions (I’m going with “open” as opposed to “an over-sharer”), and I feel like I’m relatively easy to figure out as a person anyway. However, there are some (very minor) misconceptions that have worked their way into the things people believe about me. I’m not talking about misjudgments of character or anything like that. I’m strictly speaking about the completely innocuous and at most mildly annoying assumptions that people make. I’m sure everyone knows someone who once expressed mild fondness for an animal/flower/band/etc. only for the world to decide that they are OBSESSED with that animal/flower/band/etc. and to make it the theme of every gift forever. That person then goes on to politely accumulate like 8,000 peacock figurines, which they now regard with an air of grim resignation.

For me, the strange mythologies that have sprung up around me are “Kathleen is never cold” and “Kathleen remembers everything about the books she reads.” As for the former, just because I like cool weather doesn’t mean I’m not cold in the dead of winter. (Also, the reason I wander around the house barefoot when it’s cold out, Mom, is that my feet are literally always cold and I just don’t notice it anymore. Also we’re inside.)

I realized recently that even I had fallen for the latter misconception, though. My memory is indeed very strong in some regards. For example, I have some memories from a weirdly early age. My earliest is from around 18 months, when my mom EXTREMELY ACCIDENTALLY hit me in the face with a seat belt. I don’t blame you if you’re skeptical, but I’ve corroborated specific details that were never part of a story about it, such as what side of the car I was sitting on and details about the car seat. (Also, can I just reiterate how much my mom did not mean to do this? She cried way harder than I did.) I have multiple memories from ages two and three, as well — bouncing in the stroller with my sister over a cobblestone road is a particularly fond one.

Then when I started to read, I was never content to only read one book at a time. Once I discovered The Baby-Sitters Club, I would have a stack six- or seven-deep beside my bed at all times, with a bookmark in each one. (I probably would have had more if I’d been allowed to take more out from the library.) My parents would marvel aloud that I could keep all of the stories straight, and lo, a personal legend was born.

I definitely cultivated this perception of me as a Reader Extraordinaire. I was deeply protective of and arrogant about this aspect of my identity, as I think many bookish kids are. I remember having “quote competitions” with my best friend circa eighth grade, in which we would quote the most impossibly obscure lines from Harry Potter at each other, trying to come up with one that the other person wouldn’t recognize. (I think we stumped each other once each.) Obnoxious performative bookishness aside, I genuinely could rattle off a great deal of detail from the books that I read and loved.

As I look at my bookshelf now, though, I find plenty of books that I know I enjoyed, but can barely remember anything about. I mentioned that I was rereading one of these forgotten books several months back, and my mom teased, “I didn’t think you ever forgot a book.” My arrogant child self experienced a brief moment of panic. I looked over the shelves and realized that details about characters and plots from books I had read only in the past few months now escaped me. What had become of my amazing book memory?

Well, my memory probably isn’t actually as good as it was when I was a kid. I definitely don’t read seven books at once anymore. But also, it was probably never actually that amazing, anyway. I’ve never been all that great with names, and even less so with dates. (Minoring in art history was a bit of a challenge.) The books I remember the best from childhood are either the ones that I read for school or the ones that became all-time favorites. The connection? Conversation. I never immediately stored the information I read in my long-term memory the way I’d proudly assumed that I did. I just talked about books literally all the time, and the repetition drove the details home. The books on my shelves that I don’t remember as well are the ones I’ve never had an in-depth discussion about.

I’ve always had a vague hypothesis that being a twin has a lot to do with my long memory. My sister also remembers our adventures in the stroller. I don’t know if she remembers the seat belt incident, but she does remember me falling down the stairs at my grandparents’ house when we were two. (I didn’t actually get injured all that often.) Our parents and other adult relatives obviously spoke to us all the time, but we also spoke to each other. These were conversations between cognitive equals, so we probably had to work harder to understand and be understood. I wonder if there was something about our communication skills growing in tandem that helped us to store our shared experiences in our memories. Of course, I know very little about the science of memory, so I could be entirely making this up. (It’s possible that my sister, who does know about the science of memory, will yell at me after I post this.) But I do have a good memory for conversations I have had, and it seems probable that my “good memory for books” had more to do with that aspect of my cognition than it ever had to do with actually reading.

This realization actually makes me really happy. I may not have been as ~remarkable as I once thought I was, but I did have a family who let me babble to my heart’s content about the books that I liked. Later on, I found friends who were eager to do the same. I still get to talk about books that I have in common with these friends, and I cherish and remember these conversations. The fact that I don’t remember all the books on my shelf just means that I need to make time for more of these conversations. I’ve been living alone since completing my Master’s, and though I was only literally a hermit for six months, I sometimes let myself get a bit isolated. I’m going to try to stop doing that. I want to have as many memories as possible.

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Continuity

When I was at my parents’ house for Easter a couple of weeks ago, my mother plunked a sheet of sketchbook paper in front of me. It was filled, front and back, with an elaborately loopy cursive scrawl that I recognized as my 10-year-old handwriting. I recognized it instantly: it was the first two (and maybe only two?) pages of a “novel” about vampires. I could remember the exact unit in Australia where I had scribbled it down. We were there with lots of family, visiting lots of family. Australia owns a lot of my heart and I really want to go back, but that is perhaps a different post for a different day. What I was delighted to discover/remember was that a) apparently my fondness for writing in hotel rooms started super early (the first thing I ever wrote down for story was on hotel stationary in Venice) and b) clearly so did my fondness for monsters.

I had not remembered this particular vampire idea in — well, probably about 18 years — but it immediately came back to me. It was written from the point of view of a kid named Dan, who has been best friends with Van (short for Vanessa, or “Vannessa” as I apparently thought it was spelled) for several years. They bonded over their rhyming nicknames. Van always came over to Dan’s house, though, because her parents were very “private.”

Of course, it turns out that the real reason is that they are VAMPIRES.

Van will be a vampire, too, but she isn’t one yet. You see, vampires can totally have kids, but they don’t start off as immortal creatures of the night, because then you’d just have a newborn with insatiable blood lust forever, and that’s not a good idea. So the process of becoming a vampire starts slowly around puberty (at age 10, I was morbidly fascinated with the concept of Puberty) and completes in early adulthood, at which point you stay like that forever. Van doesn’t want to become a vampire, or at least not the killing people variety, and so the story was going to involve figuring out how to remain partially human. I don’t know if I ever worked out those details, but I do know that substituting citrus fruits for blood was a major solution. For some reason. She did remain part-vampire, though, I know that; shades of Renesmee aside, I’m pleased that baby Kathleen knew that monsters had to stay monsters.

Also, I’m not sure if Dan’s “voice” is something that’s really detectable in two handwritten pages by a 10-year-old, but what little was there was pretty much straight up stolen from Marco in Animorphs.

All of this is to say that I was DELIGHTED by my mother’s discovery and also by my weirdo childhood self. If you had asked me before Easter when my love of monsters began, I probably would have placed it around age 13 (that was The Summer Of Thinking About Literally Nothing But Remus Lupin). Apparently, though, I was already predisposed to think about monsters — and to root for them.

I spent most of today working on an academic paper about monstrosity, and I couldn’t help but think about that 10-year-old in the hotel room. She wouldn’t like everything I had to tell her about age 28. She’d expected more to have happened by now. She’d thought that, at this point, everything would be settled and sure. Hadn’t she already done the heavy lifting of deciding what she wanted to be when she grew up?

(I wouldn’t tell her anything about the sociopolitical state of things in 2017, because I’m not a horrible person.)

But then I’d tell her that I still think about monsters every day of my life, and most days I write about them in some form or another. I’d tell her I haven’t stopped inventing girls with deadly bites who choose what kind of monster they want to be, and boys who are willing to do the dangerous thing and stand by their friends. I’d tell her that I have long and jubilant conversations about stories, like, all the time (because, oh yeah, I have way more friends now, and they all love to read). I’d tell her I still write in hotel rooms, and when I write longhand, it’s always in cursive (just a little less loopy now).

She wouldn’t be brave enough to ask if she really had to be as afraid of growing up as she was, and I wouldn’t be brave enough to attempt an answer. But I’d let her know that the things she loved are still the things I love, and that would make us both smile.

Story Origins, or How Athletic Failures Can Change Your Life

Since last I saw you, dear blog, I have been working on my first ever set of Official Revisions (a.k.a. as per my agent’s request), so for once I have a good excuse for such a long time between posts. This was the first pass of revisions on story that wasn’t a total overhaul (I did, um, a lot of those), so I’m feeling a little bit of DID I DO ENOUGH second-guessing, but mostly I’m excited that blank page rewrites are apparently no longer a necessity. My work on these revisions was rather . . . concentrated. By which I mean my attitude essentially was CAN’T STOP WON’T STOP until I finished. In a related story, there actually IS an upward limit of how long you can stare at word processing programs before your entire brain tries to chisel its way free of your skull. (My paid job as a transcriptionist did not help in this regard.) Hermit life was definitely conducive to nonstop work, though, so I feel very lucky that the timing of recent Life Events have fit together well, since I feel like few 25-year-olds can actually say that.

When I was preparing my revised manuscript to be emailed and waging unholy battle with Scrivener and Word (FORMATTING *shakes fist*), I named a temporary document “story.” This was what the first ever Word document of The Children’s War was named, and consequently why I still refer to it simply as story whenever I’m speaking about it. (The document title was not capitalized, so it’s not actually a proper noun, even though I use it like one. Explaining that further will force me down a mysteries-of-cognition rabbit hole [“seeing” written words in my mind’s eye when speaking, etc.], and I’m too tired for that, so let’s just leave it there.) Having a new “story” document got me thinking about the history of story, and how important it has been in my life.

Story is my first novel, and therefore it has taught me very nearly everything I now know about writing. For a long time, though, I had no idea it was going to be my first novel. I just had a couple of characters who I would occasionally take down off the mental shelf, poke around a bit, and then set aside. For this, I have the Bernards High School girls’ fencing team of 2006-2007 to thank. Specifically, I have to thank them for being so good they were boring. 

Let’s back up. Not many high schools have a fencing team, so most people I know are only really familiar with college fencing clubs – not actual teams, but just a recreational group that meets like once a week. I can’t speak for all college fencing clubs, but of the ones I’ve heard about, I can only say that there is an EXTREMELY different vibe. College teams are obviously super competitive, but many clubs tend to be, shall we say, the athletic option for the super nerds. (This is not a derogatory comment, by the way. I make up fake societies for funsies, and therefore can never cast stones w/r/t nerdery.) People would gather casually, learn and practice the basics, and generally have a good time, if you like that particular brand of physical exertion. (I do not. More on that in a minute.) This, however, is not what high school fencing was like.

High school fencing was intense. 

If you were good at it, that is. Which many, many of the fencers at my high school were. However, my high school was also rather small – small enough that it had a no-cut policy for sports teams. Anyone could get on a team, they just wouldn’t start. This is how I wound up as a fencer my freshman and sophomore year.

My motives for joining fencing were not pure. Like all the “honors kids” in my school district, I felt the college pressure from an early age. I entered high school with the neurotic need to pad my application as much and as early as possible. One of the easiest ways of doing this was getting into our chapter of National Honor Society in the beginning of junior year. Once inducted, my work would be done, because our NHS did precisely nothing. However, to get in, I would need not only good grades and no enemies among the faculty, but also enough extracurricular points each year – five, to be exact. Clubs and community service carried one-point values. Sports carried three. In hindsight, I find this remarkably unfair, but since I had a choice between a sport and two other activities versus FIVE activities, I had to pick a sport. Since most of my friends (some of whom are legitimately good athletes, and some of whom had the same motives I did) were joining fencing, I did as well.

My friends, there has never been a worse fencer than your humble blogger.

Look, I’ve never been an athlete, really. However, in my elementary and middle school phases of life, I generally was able to start a sport, achieve mediocrity, and then plateau forever as neither actually talented nor an embarrassment. Fencing, though. Oh, fencing. I progressed about as far as “learn the rules” and then could go no further. This wouldn’t have really been a problem if the team’s starters weren’t as good as they were. You see, once we won enough bouts to win the whole meet, then the rest of the no-cut-policy-team-members would be subbed in. There were enough of us that I didn’t have to fence in every meet (and I mean, we weren’t the only good team in the whole state, so sometimes good fencers were required the whole time), but far too often for my liking, I’d find myself standing in front of a crowd of my peers and our parents, in a slightly rusty robot’s version of the en garde position, facing down a fencer who was a) almost certainly better than me and b) pissed that her team had already lost. My defeats were no less humiliating for how quickly they transpired.

Plus, every night we didn’t have a meet, we had TWO AND A HALF HOURS OF PRACTICE. These were dark times for me.

NHS doesn’t care if you’re actually good at your chosen sport, though. I got my three points, and fall of junior year, I got my college app fodder. Then the fencing season began to creep up again. Now, technically I was supposed to maintain my extracurricular points, but like I said, our NHS didn’t actually do anything. Once you were in, they kind of stopped paying attention to you. So as the fencing season approached, I had an epiphany. After weeks of thinking things like “maybe I’ll break my leg,” “maybe I’ll become deathly ill,” “maybe I’ll DIE,” I realized: maybe I could just quit.

So I did.

All my friends were still in fencing, though, so I made an offer to our coach: I could act as scorekeeper. Did we really need a designated scorekeeper, instead of just using a fencer who was not currently fencing? Not really. But the coach said yes, so I still got to hang out with my friends during meets without any of that pesky actual fencing getting in my way. Plus no more two and a half hour practices. It was a perfect solution.

One day my senior year, though, I was not having a good time as scorekeeper. We were at an away meet, and the team we were playing had a very tiny gym. So tiny, in fact, that there were no bleachers or even room for chairs to watch the bouts. I was propped uncomfortably on a pile of fencing bags against the wall. Also, I was freezing, because the door was open and it was January. (I don’t know why the door was open. Possibly because if it were closed, the tiny tiny gym would have become very hot. Or it was broken.) Meanwhile, this was one of the most boring meets of the year. Like I said, our team, for the most part, was good. This team was not. They weren’t as bad as me, because that’s physically impossible, but they were losing 0-5 almost every bout. This is not interesting when you are keeping score.

My mind began to wander to the mountains of homework I could have been doing instead of shivering on a throne of masks and breast protectors recording the world’s least exciting fencing meet. At this point, I was a second semester senior who’d already gotten into college, so my attitude towards almost all of my remaining responsibilities swung between apathy and seething resentment. I was fast approaching a Very Bad Mood.

Abruptly, I decided I was displeased with being in my own head, so I’d rather inhabit the mind of someone else. And just like that, the first character of story was born. Moments later, the second character followed. They didn’t have names then, and wouldn’t for about a year, but some of you now know them as Mat and Beidrica.

Though Mat’s inception predated Beidrica’s by only a matter of seconds, he was the one whose head I first leaped into, and he was the one who stood at the center of a world that slowly built itself around him, almost without me noticing. He is very different from who he was that cold, boring January evening, but then again, so am I. While I genuinely enjoy writing all four POVs equally (Tamma came later, and Dayvec came MUCH later), Mat holds a special place in my heart, because without him, none of this would have happened.

Without the Bernards fencing team, none of this would have happened either, so this is my seven-years-overdue thank you to them. I’m glad you won states that year.