MEMORY and IMAGINATION
For years now, I have used a specific writing practice that has resulted in nearly two thousand pages of text. My process is this: I rise early, and before fully awake, place a CD (or, since about a year ago, choose one album from Spotify) in my drive, boldface the titles of all the songs in a list, hit play, and for each song I free write. When the songs change, I make a shift, too: new voice, new characters, new tone, new point of view, etc. Some of the writing is nonfiction; some of it is purely imaginary. A lot of it sucks. (Part of the joy of the exercise is that I don’t have to care—it’s play and it’s practice. I call it playing scales. A friend who is a musician and does something similar on his piano calls it doodling. For both of us, the process seems to spark a flow of creativity). Much of what results seems to pull from what must be the same place as dreams: a random mix—or conflation--of memory and imagination.
Often a memory is reconfigured in this process and I’m left not certain where the truth begins and ends. While the work I produce with this process is generally rough and unpolished, it does often lead to writing that is surprising and instructional, and sometimes I can develop sections into more polished work. And when I’m stuck, I have this to fall back on: 5:00 AM, headphones on, song titles typed, GO.
In the persistent talk about truth and its complexities in nonfiction, often lost is the less discussed but no less interesting examination of the relationship between memory and imagination. Together they can present an instructional map into the subconscious of creativity. In fiction writing that is largely autobiographical, memory—that is, a mind’s own preservation of what the sensory and emotional self once observed and experienced—often combines with imagination: what might have happened, or actually happened but is skewed for dramatization or effect on the page. The result is a genre that we have no word for. Fiction comes closest, because it best allows space for the imaginary, and avoids the uncomfortable issue of whether the thing that happened actually happened, and if so whether it happened the way it is written to have happened. Still, in work that is autobiographical enough to recount experiences from memory, is it not equally dishonest to hide the memory behind the mask of fiction? My goal is not to suggest that the finger wagging that happens to nonfictionists should happen to fictionists as well; it is merely to suggest that maybe what is amiss is not scruples but terminology. Hybrid is a useful term, and goes far to address the issue. But hybrid suggests the merging of two separate instincts, each discernable from the other. In hybrid, Memory and Imagination are progenitors of the final work, each external to it. But I’m not convinced that is the case with a lot of what we call hybrid. Perhaps a better term is conflation which suggests a process that is internal, a fusing of memory and imagination particles, a fusion so tight that the memory/imagination mix becomes nearly indiscernible.
I bring this all up here because my flash fiction piece “Flight," published in the most recent issue of Split Rock Review, came out of the process described above. I call it fiction, because it is non- nonfiction, but to be honest, fiction doesn’t feel like the right term, either. In writing it, I pulled from a couple different pieces of the free writing described above, written years apart, and then I added, shaped, honed. To illustrate what I mean by conflation, here are a couple lines from the last paragraph of this fiction/nonfiction/hybrid/conflation/whatever:
"And where is that love now? Hunkered down like a soldier in a bunker, hiding from itself and all that hovers to devour it. Like a potato in the cellar, its eyes growing, reaching, bending."
I’m not even sure the metaphors work here—soldiers, potatoes—but, and I hope you’ll forgive me this, I like it. These three sentences are pure stream of consciousness, and I wrote them while listening to Josh Ritter’s “Temptation of Adam.” Ritter is from Idaho, and once, when I saw him in concert, between songs he jokingly mentioned about how everyone in Idaho has so many potatoes they can’t give them away, so they keep them in cellars, and the potato eyes grow and spread there. “Temptation of Adam” is a love song about a couple in a bunker seeking to escape nuclear apocalypse. One of the lines states, “Fusion was the broken heart/ that’s lonely’s only thought.” (It might be interesting to know that I only looked back at this after the piece had been accepted by SRR. There was nothing about loneliness or broken hearts in my initial section of free writing; that came genuinely from lived experience). I liked the idea of old love just sort of creeping around in a subterranean void. Because I think that no matter how well we move on from past relationships, the love we felt once never fully goes away. (Or the heartbreak for that matter, though I like to think the love lasts longer). Anyway, the song, my own past, imagination, writing in early morning while still waking, all of it thrown together in a blender, the result a layered mix. Conflation.
Though the conversation about truth in nonfiction will continue, I find myself less and less interested in literal truth in writing that is memoirist. (Literary journalism is a different matter). As a reader, what I really want is to see an active mind at work, to not have my intelligence insulted, and to be made aware that even in our various isolations, we are all connected.