Anticipated Memories

Is the creative process little more than the act of anticipating a memory?

I was thinking about this when watching a very popular TED talk by Daniel Kahneman on the distinction between experience and memory. Our experiencing self, he argues, is very short lived – the sum of our feelings and emotions as experienced in the present – what we might describe as being how we feel IN our life. Our remembering self on the other hand, is a storyteller, who hand picks segments of our experiences, comparing them against one another in order to paint a picture of how we feel ABOUT our lives. In this way, when we think about the future we are simply anticipating memories.

In many ways memory is the very essence of what we are. We take (or avoid taking) actions based on our memories of past experiences and when we don’t have direct experience we use what we know as a short cut to anticipate future memories to help us with decision making. I can explain this more clearly by considering the process that led me to start this blog.

I imagine myself becoming part of a community of writers and thinkers who learn from each other through blog posts and online discussions. I anticipate reaching out to an ever increasing number of readers whom I hope will find some use in what I say, even if it is just to disagree with me and confirm their own thoughts. I visualize this blog as a creative driving force – an intellectual cheerleader who spurs me on to complete my novel and other projects and silences that inner bastard who likes to tell me that I should give up and not embarrass myself any further.

This act of anticipating how I will remember feeling when all of this comes to pass is what drives me to the act of putting fingers to keyboard. Writing as I am in this moment, my experiencing self is not particularly happy. It’s difficult to find the right words to say. This sentence is the culmination of many other sentences that had to be deleted and altered in order for this one to make it to the final post. These are short-lived experienced sensations that I will remember differently when I think about this blog post a week, a month or a year from now.

Hopefully, my remembering self will not take the feeling of pain in trying to crank out these words as the defining memory in starting the blog. Although it has yet to edit a memory of this moment into my conscience it will either be fuel to help me keeping writing further posts or will snuff out any motivation to continue.

Reflecting on this process of blog creation, I’d argue that the creative process leans very heavily on anticipated memory until, that is, the process itself is complete and the finished piece is handed over to the consumer. An anticipated memory is an imagined possibility rather than a fact (even a distorted version of a fact). The business of fiction is all about the imagined possibility.

I think this is why the phrase ‘write what you know’ is such a bone of contention to many writers, as if it is not possible to tell a story unless you have some memory taken from direct experience of the event/place/family/situation in question. Most fiction writing takes place outside the realm of actual memories and I argue that we might meaningfully frame this process as the production of anticipated ones, even if we know such memories to be impossible. For example, I can imagine myself as an alien senator in a galaxy far far away and can anticipate how I would respond were I in that situation despite knowing that it will never be. The reason I can do this is that my remembering self is also a storyteller who is happy to anticipate a wealth of different scenarios using the building blocks of my existing database of experience. This, indeed, is a wonderful thing!

I’d argue that this is a better way to understand the ‘write what you know’ philosophy. I think understanding the creative process as the act of anticipating memories may be ultimately more useful rather simply suggesting that an IT consultant who aspires to write, should write a story about being an IT consultant.

Of course, once produced the creative piece becomes simultaneously anticipated memory, present experience and remembered experience to all that come into contact with it. For example, a reader of a book may anticipate the feeling of enjoying a good story, they will experience those emotions through the act itself and, when finished will remember having enjoyed the book and may store this knowledge to make decisions about reading in the future. Over this, the author has little control, because for them, the piece is now firmly within the remembered self – whether or not they remember the experience as pleasurable or painful.

I’d be interested to hear what other thoughts people have on this? Does fiction as memory mean we can only ever write about ourselves, even if they are fantastical versions of them? And is this necessarily a bad thing?

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2 Comment

  1. Interesting post . . . I tell my students to “write what they know” as a means to get the metaphorical ball rolling. . . a starting point. From there, I think fiction can be whatever your imagination renders. For example, I love to observe people and imagine their stories. The memory of seeing them is my starting point, but the stories I create about them are pure fiction.

    1. thenovelprojectchronicle says: Reply

      Thanks so much for commenting. My PhD is in the social sciences (my day job) which I love but I have a real passion for stories and storytelling that research and analysis doesn’t exactly allow for 🙂 I’m looking forward to writing more posts and watching the blog grow.

      I also like your take on observing people and imagining their stories. Maeve Binchy (a very well loved Irish novelist) used to listen in on other people’s conversations as inspiration for her work. She would hear a snippet of something and that would fire up her imagination.

      I think that’s something I love about the human condition – that we have imagination – and I think that’s what I mean about future memories. We can construct an idea of how we expect something to be like based on very little prior experience. It’s an incredible thing when you think about it.

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