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Reflections of a working writer and reader



Source Confusions: Distortions of Memory

“It is startling to realize that some of our most cherished memories may never have happened—or may have happened to someone else. I suspect that many of my enthusiasms and impulses, which seem entirely my own, have arisen from others’ suggestions, which have powerfully influenced me, consciously or unconsciously, and then been forgotten. Similarly, while I often give lectures on similar topics, I can never remember, for better or worse, exactly what I said on previous occasions; nor can I bear to look through my earlier notes. Losing conscious memory of what I have said before, and having no text, I discover my themes afresh each time, and they often seem to me brand-new. This type of forgetting may be necessary for a creative or healthy cryptomnesia, one that allows old thoughts to be reassembled, retranscribed, recategorized, given new and fresh implications.

Sometimes these forgettings extend to autoplagiarism, where I find myself reproducing entire phrases or sentences as if new, and this may be compounded, sometimes, by a genuine forgetfulness. Looking back through my old notebooks, I find that many of the thoughts sketched in them are forgotten for years, and then revived and reworked as new. I suspect that such forgettings occur for everyone, and they may be especially common in those who write or paint or compose, for creativity may require such forgettings, in order that one’s memories and ideas can be born again and seen in new contexts and perspectives.”

Oliver Sacks

Extracted from Speak, Memory by Oliver Sacks; an article in The New York Review of Books.

7 Responses to “Source Confusions: Distortions of Memory”

  1. Jim Murdoch says:

    For the last two years I’ve been pottering around with what I’m laughing calling my sixth novel because if I don’t get a novel out of all this I’ll be royally pissed. The subject is memory and this quote will definitely go in the pile of things-to-look-at-with-a-view-of-trying-to-find-a-place-for-them-somewhere-in-the-book. I’ve been trying to use moments from my not-especially-interesting past to get me started and I’ve been continually thwarted by my inability to remember events with any degree of clarity and I’m very conscious of the fact that even at this stage of the game I’m fictionalising my past and this is before I even start to think about changing names, date and places but I do very much like the idea of coming to memories afresh. I’ve just ordered four books from Amazon on Alzheimer’s which I’m hoping will help. I’ve read a fair bit from the perspective of medical professionals and carers but very little from suffers which is more what I need. When I fell it a few years back and had all those short term memory problems and difficulty in concentrating I was genuinely worried that this was what was happing to me and since then I pay particular attention to what I can and can’t remember. This quote is very helpful. Thank you for that. I’ve saved the whole article.

  2. john baker says:

    Yes, the memory is fascinating, Jim; and together with Time, it has preoccupied me also for many years. I suppose you know Williams’ The Glass Menagerie – but even so it is worth looking at again. And the same goes for many of Pinter’s plays

  3. Jim Murdoch says:

    Actually I’ve never seen The Glass Menagerie. Not quite sure how I missed that but I’ve left a note to remind me to find a copy of the film; the 1987 version directed by Paul Newman looks promising. Thanks for pointing me in that direction.

  4. paisley says:

    ‘There’s nothing new under the sun’. I loved reading ‘The Glass Menagerie’ must read it again soon. Had no idea it was made into a film.

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