I live across the street from an elementary school—the school my kids attended many years ago. Though I am long past the first-day-of-school jitters I often felt on my kids’ behalf, I watch with a certain wistfulness as the cars and SUVs pull up in front of school. On the very first day, the parents linger, hanging around long after their offspring have lined up and skipped to the kindergarten room. The older kids are cool, urging their parents to just drop them off. The new backpacks and lunch boxes haven’t yet been misplaced or forgotten; the lost and found awaits its first infusion of jackets and sweaters.
Ask a group of adults what they remember about the first day of school and you’ll get a wide range of responses—everything from excitement and anticipation to anxiety and dread. Can you remember anything about your first day of fifth grade? What about your first day as a senior in high school, when, finally, you made it to the top of the heap? What do you remember about those first days? If you grew up in the San Francisco Bay Area, as I did, you wore a jacket on the way to school and wished you’d left it home by the afternoon. Our Indian summer kicks in right around that first day, and the heat of those afternoons could put even the most attentive student into a lid-heavy stupor after lunch.
My school days are long past, but just one memory—the Kelly green straight skirt and matching crew-neck sweater I begged for—can trigger others, not unlike those old-fashioned postcard packets that unfold into a long column of images: the scenic places that belong to my girlhood.
Fall is complicated, and a little bittersweet. It’s the beginning of the end of the year. Or, if you celebrate the Jewish New Year, it’s the beginning of a new one. Songs about autumn are sung in a minor key. It’s that kind of season. The days dwindle down to a precious few.
And even if you don’t watch much television, it’s hard to ignore all the talk about “the new fall season” these days. I admit I’m still grieving over the end of “Friday Night Lights,” even though I thought the finale was one of the best I’d ever seen—and far less agonizing than the last episode of “The Sopranos.” So, although there isn’t much that qualifies as “must see TV” at my house, the review of a new show caught my eye. “Unforgettable” features a character with a rare condition: highly superior autobiographical memory, or HSAM.
It may sound like science fiction, but it’s a real condition, also known as hyperthymesia. According to the brief research I did on this subject, there are only twenty confirmed cases of HSAM, one of whom is the actress Marilu Henner, who has been enlisted as a consultant for “Unforgettable.” When I dug a little deeper, I discovered that Leslie Stahl did a “60 Minutes” segment on the subject of HSAM: “The Gift of Endless Memory,” featuring Marilu Henner and four others with the same capacity for memory. Pick any date at random, and these folks can provide a litany of uncanny details: they remember what they wore and what they did on any given day of their lives, what day of the week it was, the weather, and who was who in the news. (The program ran on December 19th, 2010: a Sunday. I had to check. But then I realized the show always airs on Sunday. I do not have HSAM.)
Would this ability be a boon to writers, I wondered? Were these individuals to write a memoir with that level of detail, it would be as dense as a holiday fruitcake (and maybe as palatable?) With no selectivity, as Stahl remarked on the program, these folks “remember ordinary, non emotional events the rest of us forget.” Dr. Larry Cahill, one of two neurobiologists from the University of California, Irvine, who appeared on the show, quoted psychologist William James:
“Selection is the very keel on which our mental ship is built. And in the case of memory, its utility is obvious. If we remembered everything, we should on most occasions be as ill off as if we remembered nothing.
Both Dr. Cahill and Dr. James McGaugh—renowned for their research on memory—agree that further research on HSAM may someday help solve the mysteries of conditions like Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of memory disorders. But for the few folks who are known to have HSAM, it’s a lot like living in two worlds at the same time. Which is one way to describe the life of a writer?
If you’re not one of the twenty people now known to have HSAM, and you are trying to write a memoir or any kind of nonfiction piece that features yourself as a character, you’re in the same boat as the rest of us who have to squeeze our eyes shut and try to dredge up details from the past. Maybe a few episodes are indelibly etched on your memory, but others are more elusive. This is where you as a writer can flex your muscles and use a few tricks to wrestle those memories onto the page:
If you choose to, and the relevant people are still around to ask, you might be able to conduct interviews to get some of the background and fill in the details. Or, you might be able to use primary sources to unearth forgotten information. For example, I recently went back to my hometown library and spent an eye-crossing afternoon viewing microfilm of the now defunct local newspaper to satisfy my curiosity about an event that occurred in my childhood. The story was splashed across the front pages at the time, but I didn’t remember the month—or even the year—it occurred. After a lucky guess on the year, I found what I was looking for: a string of articles that brought back a rush of memories. I got goose bumps reading the forgotten details. What I remembered as schoolyard gossip was right there in the paper, word for word, exactly as it was whispered among the kids at recess.
Or, shhhh, you could provide a plausible scenario… imagining on the page how things might have been. You could picture what the situation was, even though you may not have actually been with the grownups at the New Year’s Eve party you got shooed away from. The Creative part of Creative Nonfiction happens when the writer uses these devices to color outside the lines a little. As one of the neurobiologists on “60 Minutes” said, “A little forgetting is needed to abstract and generalize.” Getting every detail just right isn’t the point. You can take the reader right along with you to enjoy the scenery on the “it could have happened like this” journey.
You can rely on your senses to help out too: Proust wasn’t the only one to take off using a small cookie as a memory trigger. Take apart an Oreo and see if you don’t slip into a childhood reverie. For me, one breath of the air in a New York subway entrance immediately brings back memories from the year I lived in Manhattan—when I was six years old.
November is National Alzheimer’s Awareness Month. At this time of year, I can’t help thinking about my dear friend who began experiencing the early stages of Alzheimer’s around eight years ago. During the first few years of her diagnosis, she met with a writing coach every week to record her thoughts and the memories she could still recall before the inevitable march of the disease made it impossible for her to continue.
And so I believe that the stories we tell—whether we have highly superior autobiographical memory, or just the run-of-the-mill capacity to remember things—have an urgency about them for the simple reason that writers haven’t got time for the waiting game, as the song says. These precious days, these precious memories, these dreams that we keep beside our pillows, all need to make it to the page today.