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On Memory and Imagination

February 12, 2012

In his autobiographical novel The Ink-Keeper’s Apprentice (Walter Lorraine Books, 1979), Allen Say writes of his apprenticeship to the cartoonist Noro Shinpei, before Say moved from Japan to the U.S. (Say has a new book out that explores that same time period.) In real life and in the book, Sensei becomes a mentor of both art and the spirit. I’m so accustomed to reading prose that moves between scenes and exposition, narrative and reflection, that this novel threw me (in a good way, I think) since it’s composed entirely of scenes. In a way, it’s a like a very mature and well-written kid’s story, as in, a story written by a kid: “and then this happened, and then that, and then this other thing happened.” Introspection and wisdom are reserved for Sensei in his spoken teachings. This one caught my eye:

“Pay attention to all that goes on around you. Remember, memory is the most important asset to an artist. What we call imagination is rearrangement of memory. You cannot imagine without memory” (31).

What we’ve witnessed, experienced, learned, read, watched, and dreamed is encoded. When we create art, aren’t we really revising all that stuff? Pulling from here and there, observing something new, mashing it all together to create something different? Perhaps not a groundbreaking statement, unless we consider its implications in writing. Thanks to Say, when the argument is made that memoir requires no imagination, the counter-arguments flow quite nicely: fiction requires memory; memoir traffics solely in imagination; all literature requires tapping the central source of memory and genre is simply the tool for expressing what we find there.

Elif Batuman’s “The Sanctuary” (The New Yorker December 19, 2011) touches on something similar. Batuman investigates Göbekli Tepe in Turkey, a site of over sixty giant engraved limetone pillars. At roughly eleven thousand years old, Göbekli Tepe just may be the world’s oldest temple. Why it was built, and what role it played in our ancient narrative, remain mysteries. In weighing the role of imagination in archeology, the scientific study of the past, Batuman writes, “Imagination is always projection: to guess how Neolithic people might have felt about anything was to assume, doubtless incorrectly, that they felt the way we would have felt about it. And yet, with no imagination at all, it’s difficult to see how any interpretation is possible. As Jens Notroff put it, ‘Without any imagination, this is all a pile of rubbish.’” I love thinking of our brain material that way…a pile of rubbish until we exercise a little imagination.

Finally, professor and researcher Shelley Carson’s April 2011 article in Scientific American, “The Unleashed Mind: Why Creative People Are Eccentric,” also relates to Say’s literary statement. “Our brains are constantly accessing imagery and memories stored in our mental files to process and decode incoming information,” writes Carson. In many people, particularly those who don’t rank sky-high on creativity and eccentricity scales, “Thanks to cognitive filters, most of this input never reaches conscious awareness.” But when those filters are somewhat “more porous” and less effective, traits now found in highly innovative people, more “stuff” from the huge pile of stimuli we’ve been exposed to gets through. “Imagery and memories” are in there, and for certain people, more of it comes through to the conscious mind. “We think that the reduction in cognitive inhibition,” writes Carson, “allows more material into conscious awareness that can then be reprocessed and recombined in novel and original ways, resulting in creative ideas.” That material becomes available for manipulation into art, language, and innovations.

This all makes me so happy. To me, it supports the notion that all our creative ideas, no matter what form they ultimately take, can be traced to one source. And if that’s the case, perhaps we can finally stop claiming superiority of one creative form over another, or questioning the validity of the stories told in memoir or personal essay, no matter the creativity used to tell them. I dream!

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