Ducks, dreams and cross-channel ferries: the York Festival of Writing
Why should I bother?

The value of forgetting

By way of soothing my guilt and irritation at forgetting a much-needed appointment with my wonderful osteopath (I blame the York Festival of Writing for the amnesia, as well as the malfunctioning vertebrae) I've been thinking about how memory works in writing. You could make a powerful argument that all narrative works by using memory's neural pathways, even when it's fiction - "Fiction is the memories we don't have" - but that's not what I'm talking about. I mean using your memory as part of your process, and not just remembering things, but forgetting them.

Actually, it's York, in another sense, which got me thinking about this: in the workshop I shared with my agent Clare Alexander and another of her authors, Fiona Shaw, I mentioned that The Mathematics of Love was actually the third outing for my Peninsular War soldier Stephen Fairhurst: he first appeared in a twenty minute writing class exercise, then as the author of a set of letters in another novel, and finally got a full narrative - half a novel - to himself, the best part of a decade later. "Yes," said Clare, "the character who won't go away." I'd never really thought of it like that: with hindsight it's obvious that Stephen was important, appealing, full of potential... that he was who I should be writing. But of course it wasn't obvious at all, at the time: he just was always there. Asked by me what I should be working on for the next project, my memory kept offering him up, and forgetting (at least temporarily) all the dozens of other characters that I found/invented/overheard/imagined in that decade; characters who might please an agent or be fashionable to read or easy to write, who might get that deal... "No, write Stephen," said my memory. And sure enough, it's Stephen and Stephen's voice that the majority of readers say they love best about that book.

When it comes to researching a novel, too, I sometimes say that I use my memory as a sieve; I rely on it to serve up what I need, and to forget what I don't. One of the big problems in writing - and in writing historical fiction in particular - is to integrate material you've found out, so that it reads as if you didn't have to find it out: as if it arose as naturally as material drawn from your own life and home town. The worst writing you'll ever do is when you've got the textbook in the other hand, and the second-worst is when you've got your notes beside the keyboard. Yes, read that book and make those notes to get the stuff into your head. And then move on from the piles of raw fact: let your memory - and your narrator's memory, and your characters' memories - wander over that battlefield or along that street, and speak of what matters to them and not of what doesn't. One of the reasons that A Secret Alchemy, despite being rooted in impossibly complicated political history, wasn't as daunting to write as it might have been, was that Elizabeth Woodville is another character who wouldn't go away: I first wrote a novel centred on her five years or so earlier. But in the main writing I rarely had to go back to the notes I had from that try, because as I wrote most of what I wanted swam up from under the Peterloo-Waterloo stuff of TMOL, and presented itself to me. Of course I went back and checked stuff, later, if I had the least twinge about whether it was right. Of course I found there were plenty of things I still needed to know. But the basics of what mattered - what things to show, what to tell, what to omit - were mediated by my memory.

And then, in an answer to that recurring cry of writerly agony, how-do-I-get-everything-into-the-synopsis-in-only-a-page-and-a-half, Jessica Ruston suggested that it's always a good idea to write your synopsis from memory. Of course it is, I found myself thinking. True, I always have done it from memory, because if you're writing it in order to submit to an agent or publisher, you know the novel far too well to need to refer back. But I hadn't thought of it as deliberate process, and yet the selectiveness of memory is just what you need here, because what you're trying to show in your synopsis is the big architecture of the plot, and the main changes in the main characters: how the bridge is built. Those are what you remember, after all. It's horribly easy, turning the pages of the mss by the keyboard, to get bogged down in all the subplots and trips to the shops, and that way madness lies (not to mention a grimly stodgy synopsis). But even right at the end of writing your novel, your memory knows what matters, and will serve that up and leave the rest behind.

None of this, of course, is to say that a writer shouldn't keep a notebook, and write everything down: the cosmos is as full of the phrases I knew I wouldn't forget, and have, as it is of the photographs I didn't take: I hope they're all waiting for me in heaven. Nor that we shouldn't make notes of what our novels need: a longhand snag-list-in-the-making, a scribbled note of what the last scene is, a sudden realisation of a character... And it can be very useful to flip back through your notebooks when inspiration fails or you don't remember enough of a place you want to use. But the writing-down can itself be part of filling your memory so that you then don't need the notes, just as making a shopping list can mean that you hardly refer to it at all while trundling along the aisles of the supermarket. And there's nothing to stop you checking the list over in the queue, to see whether you did forget something tasty or nourishing, and going back to get it if you did.

What I'm suggesting is that at the most essentially creative moments of the creative process, how your memory works is as important as how your imagination does, or your vocabulary. No, you can't always have faith in your memory (as my osteopath will tell you, through gritted teeth), but I do think it's worth listening to it: asking yourself why you didn't think to write that character who was such a sure-fire commercial or prize-list idea; why your mind didn't serve up all that lovely research you enjoyed so much and took so much trouble to get; why you forgot to put all the best friend's uncle's business troubles in the synopsis. Don't be cross with yourself, or despise yourself, or go back and start shoehorning all those things in: it's all part of the process, and as part of that process your memory was trying to tell you something. Maybe it knows best...

Comments