why do we forget so much


I keep diaries (this one and my private moleskine) for so many reasons–one of which is the fear that I will forget so much of my life. I am afraid that these beautiful and terrifying moments will dissipate into nothingness, and then what will I be left with? Why am I living them if I’m never to remember them again?

I’m disturbed by the fact that I don’t remember much of my breathing life. What do I remember from my college years? Off the top of my head, maybe a handful of things (what my dorm looked like, the boyfriends I had, the terrifying organic chemistry exams, ordering pizza late into the night, jumping up and down on the bed with friends, to erasure music with the lights off). If I push myself to remember more, I’ll remember a handful more.

What do I remember of high school? Less than that of college. And of elementary school? Less, still–perhaps the feeling of the wind on my face as I rode my Schwinn bicycle, or of going to church and memorizing verses. The memories come a lot more slowly than those of college.

So much has gone into the atmosphere, or into deep dark recesses in my mind, almost utterly lost. I can come up with pages of memories–but still, that is nowhere near all of it, there is so much that is unretrieved. I cannot possibly remember everyday of my life, though I KNOW that each day was rich with experience and feeling. Even last week–what can I remember?

I am not the only one to have such a fear: a poster on moleskinerie muses on this concern as well, coming up with a unique answer (in her case, she sums up a day in one sentence–now that’s a slow way to fill up a moleskine notebook).

My tactics for combating forgetfulness entail many more words–I couldn’t sum up most of my days in one sentence.

As you see here and can imagine in my moleskine, I have a huge fear of forgetting my memories and I frantically write them all down, try to document my life. It is NOT easy to remember in general, and I often wonder why memories have to be “cued” and such, and why we even forget. I do not remember all the days of my childhood, even though each one, while lived, was so acute and bright to me. Everything fades.

I do not like this fading.

Complicating this fear is my recent stroke, which left most of December and January a blank in my mind–a much more horrible loss had I not spent much of it somehow writing frenetically in my journal, even if sometimes it was nonsense and jumbled with evidence of my aphasia and a damaged thalamus.

At least, with those words, I had an impression of that experience, if not an exact representation of what actually happened.

I am trying to remember every minute of London–frantically saying to myself, “Did I write that down? Did I write down every sensation and feeling and emotion?” What about sliding down the Carsten Holler slides? Do I remember every second of that terrific swoosh down to the ground? Do I remember the unpredictability of the twists and turns, the electric feeling of falling, the enclosed sliding tube full of my delighted screams?

Of course, years later (or weeks, or months later)–I will have forgotten. I will have to thumb through the pages to remember exactly what happened, and what I’d felt. I may remember, but it will be a general impression until I refer to my journal. How odd is that?

And then, how does this all translate to my fiction, which oddly, is my focus as a writer (yes, this despite my obsession with this nonfiction blog)?

How does fiction, if at all, satisfy my fear of forgetfulness?

Fiction is not a work of documentation, but of creation itself–do I turn to it because in fiction I am relieved of this insane fear of forgetting?



Filed under Life, Memories, The Stroke, Writing

7 responses to “why do we forget so much

  1. You only remember what is important. The rest is trashed or forgotten. Only information focused on for encoding for recall will be remembered. Another reason we forget is that information we have stored becomes obsolete and new information replaces it.

    I know that unless I can put information into context, I am more likely to not retain it. So it seems to me that you have to put information stored before your stroke (Before Stroke “B.S.”) into that context. No pun intended! Then there is everything after the stroke (“A.S.”). The context will help you either forget or recall the information you have stored. Sometimes we cue ourselves to recall events or information.

    Fiction is often based in reality – in connections. Just as you are making connections daily with things, people, events to cue you to remember…so a writer uses them all the time.

  2. w

    Wonderful, important questions. I say yes to the last one. To the one before that: Fiction is not necessarily about re-creating memories but can be about re-creating mood, metaphor, language, and hence to establish a root, or a cubbyhole, for memory. And you can also write about this fear of forgetting in your fiction; if you want to avoid the directly autobiographical route, try allegorizing the experience/sensation of this fear. That’s probably not a helpful response. But maybe this might be interesting: In the act of writing, there’s always, in a sense, the act of forgetting. That is, by writing about what’s going on in our minds, by writing out our fears, we’re continuing a cycle of recall/storage in our brains where we’re constantly searching for the right words to clearly chart a frame of mind, and then dropping those words to move on to the next ones.

    Hm… I feel like a dope, as I can’t quite crystallize this point. I’ll sleep on it, see if it might be clearer in the morning.

    (And thanks for the Erasure reminder; I was actually thinking about them recently.)

  3. can I say that we are all using less than 1% of our brains each, thus the potential of forgetting is rather high. I’m facing the same problem sometimes, too. Can ‘Rest’ be the antidote?

  4. There are many things that have happened in my life that I would gladly forget. 😉

  5. That question of how fiction and forgetfulness work is interesting. I think one of the reasons I write is so that things won’t be lost, even if in the act of saving I am changing them.

  6. heh

    i apologize if you’ve already answered this question. i tried searching the answer through the posts filed under the topic; perhaps you would not mind directing me to that post:

    what caused the stroke? beyond physiologically.

    this is going to sound really strange but lately i have this foreboding feeling that i will have a stroke sooner or later.

  7. You can read about the cause of the stroke here…but in general:

    1. The doctors believe a clot formed in my leg somewhere random (the clot was so small, it was really two platelets stuck together).

    2. The clot traveled into my heart. Normally a clot would travel from one side of the heart to the lungs, which take care of most clots.

    3. In my case, the clot went through a hole (a “PFO”) in the septum of my heart and went straight to the other side without traveling through the lungs. 25% of the population has such a hole, but only a tiny percentage suffer strokes.

    4. The clot then got pumped into the aorta and went into my brain (it could have gone anywhere).

    5. The clot then traveled to my thalamus where it caused the stroke.

    6. Luckily, the clot was small enough that it didn’t stick around that long. It dislodged, but not without first creating some recovery issues for me.

    I had a stroke by total fluke.

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