Comedian, Lewis Black, does a routine about growing old and suffering from memory loss. He talks about that actor, I can’t remember his name right now, but you’ll remember him. He’s the guy who played that priest in the movie—gee, what was that movie? You know, the one where he takes off his shirt in Starbucks every morning as he orders his coffee on his way to the rectory to meet what’s-her-name. Come on, you know who I’m talking about. In real life he’s married to that blond singer who had that song last year about love—remember? She was dating that basketball player, the one from that country in Europe or somewhere…wait, it’ll come to me.
Well, you get the idea. All I know is that I can relate. I have an awful time remembering names, faces, object and places. I recognize all of them when I see them, no problem. I just can’t pull their labels out of my brain sight unseen.
I worked next to a guy for ten years. We saw each other every day. We sat in meetings together, complained about the boss together and worked on countless projects together. Six years later, guess who I bump into at the supermarket? Yep, old what’s-his-name. We talked for a strained ten minutes or so. All the while, I’m maintaining my side of the conversation adequately enough to allow the remaining portion of my brain to systematically go through the entire alphabet as I frantically search for a clue to his name. How could I forget this guy’s name for crying out loud! I knew exactly who he was; I knew just about everything about him…except his name.
I did what anyone would do in this circumstance. I substituted his name with the word, “you.” “Hey you, how you doing…how’s the wife (can’t remember her name either) and kids?” I had to wait until I got home and got on the computer before I could sift thought old staff lists to exhume his name. I think the saying is simply, how embarrassing!
The problem grows worse now that I am attempting to become a writer. I have to make sure I write down every plot twist and turn because I can’t trust myself to remember them. I recently published a novel called, THE POPE’S STONE. The Pope’s stone was a real piece of stone; a marble slab actually. It was a gift to the United States in 1854 from Pope Pius IX. It was engraved “From Rome to America” and it was to be installed within the interior walls of the Washington Monument then under construction in the nation’s capital. Many similar stones that were donated in support of the Monument remain today. They are embedded in its walls as you ascend the stairs or elevator to the top. The Pope’s stone was too political, however; there were objections about a “religious” stone being placed in a secular monument. A group of anti-Catholics known as the “Know-Nothings” broke into the Monument construction site one night, smashed the Pope’s stone to bits and threw them into the Potomac River. Nary a piece of the Pope’s stone would ever be seen again…except for a small fictitious fragment I dug out of my imagination and upon which I proceeded to base an entire novel. Where did my shovel unearth this story, you ask? I can’t remember!
I know the idea came to me while I was lying in bed one night soon after reading about the Pope’s stone. Again, don’t ask me where I read about it. Likewise, don’t ask me how I took this lone incident and built a novel about two fictional characters who were descendants of a Virginia family, each living parallel lives that mirrored each other almost exactly. However, they lived a century apart! Nope, can’t exactly recall how all that came together one night as I lie in bed. Maybe I’ll remember after I sleep on it.
So, I proceed with this figment that oozed itself from the depths of my skull. As I am building my manuscript I occasionally lose track of which character, and in what century, I am writing about. I have to hit the pause button and remind myself: “ Now, it’s Nicholas and it’s 1971 in Silver Spring, Maryland, got it?”
I remember asking myself, “If I’m confused, how will the reader keep all this straight?” I think this predicament happened on purpose, not to make me feel like an idiot, but to help me make sure I would write the story carefully so that a reader would not get confused. Wow, do you think that’s what really happened? I can’t remember.
My memory is sort of on the edge right now. It is marginal at best, as I am having more and more of what they call senior moments. Sure, I can tell the difference between a ’53 and ’54 Chevy in a split second, but the name of the lady I just met less than a minute ago? Not sure.
I wonder if other writers suffer from marginal memory? I did not realize for years that my lack of retention was probably why I had a hard time with some courses in school. I did the work, read the books, studied more than anyone and then got one of the lower grades. I had trouble remembering the information when it came time to feed it back. Today, I could probably make an entirely acceptable disability out of this and there would be special ed courses for me and others who suffered from this tragic memory disorder.
When I was 46 I went back to school for an MBA…pretty gutsy move on my part. The same problem I had in school years ago began all over again. One of my classmates, with whom I shared many group project assignments, said I suffered from “leakage.” I always liked that term. It was an apt description of my malady. I pictured this blob of facts and figures and ideas billowing out from some pore in my head, never to be retrieved back again. Taking a leak took on a whole new meaning to me.
I marvel at how J.K. Rowling had to keep every little detail about Harry Potter, volume after volume, neatly packed away in the data banks of her mind. One slip-up in book five that was linked to a deeply hidden nuance in book two and her credibility would have been blown forever. Her fans were too keen on what was going on in every book to let her get away with it. Given the volume of work in all the Potter volumes…well, that’s pretty scary!
So, where are we? Any advice here? Yes, but more for those approaching or having arrived where I am, here at the 60-plus platform. First, bring along a pencil and pad and make sure you write down what track you’re supposed to be on, when and for what train. Once onboard in your seat, make sure you write down where you have to get off. Maybe that’s not such a bad idea for some younger writers, too. Maybe some of them are like me—they have leakage. I wonder if it’s related to writer’s block? I’m not sure, but there’s this comedian, what’s-his-name, who has a routine about all this—you know, that guy who’s funnier than hell. He tells about this rabbi or something, who takes his pants off at the supermarket every night and…