Tuesday, March 1, 2016

Perec's Four Kinds of Memory

I recently found a copy of a collection of short non fiction pieces by Georges Perec, a French author who played close to the OuLiPo* school and loved to toy with the edges between fiction and fact.

One essay in particular caught my attention immediately: The Work of Memory. One of the things Perec did in his writing was elevate the worth of daily, mundane tasks, promoting himself to recall them with as much directness as - if not more than - trauma or large significant events. He speaks in this essay about a socialism of memory, in a sense, a non-hierarchical access to the place where collective experience meets personal expression.

In a follow-up, Notes on What I'm Looking For, he refers to four fields of his interest in his work. I love these descriptions - "in one he grows beetroot, in another Lucerne, in a third, maize." All grown by him, but with different focuses of interest. Here are those four fields, also of great interest to memoir readers and writers:

1. Sociological. The examples he gives are in essays where he looks at the everyday things we all interact with but in our own ways - beds, streets, apartments. Describing these as subjects in their own right, not as servants to memories which carry more significance.

2. Autobiographical. Direct memories of one's own life. Of course these overlap with larger social themes and memories, but specifically are about our own stories. Typical topics of memoir.

3. What he calls scales. Playing with words, form, constraints. This is where he overlaps with OuLiPo the most. For instance, Queneau, one of his contempriwries, wrote the same scene written in 100 different styles. All based in the direct scene he witnessed, but varying in language, form and perspective. Word games and challenges like writing a 300 page book without the letter "e". Not using "I", even in memoir. 

These may seem trite and silly, but in fact are profound stretches and good exercises for getting new perspective and a sense of playfulness.

4. Fictive. Making fiction, but with full awareness of it being connected to direct experience. This, of course, is a taboo topic for published memoir, but an important way to play with memory and perspective in the process of writing memoir. Also included in this is the understanding that memory lies - the stories we have constructed out of especially our most significant memories are at least half constructed at this point.

In fact, back in the first essay I mention, The Work of Memory, Perec describes how the ordinary memories he works to capture can seem to be wrenched from a pure place - untouched by having been remembered before, which is how neuroscientists have come to describe it now. In other words, we have untapped reserves of the first type of memories, sociological, just waiting with tremendous power for us to uncover.

We go looking to our big stories to unlock something and carry a book forward. But to out all our weight in the second field alone is to create a sinkhole. Make sure to explore all four of these fields, and any anothers you or others have discovered in our memoir adventures.

*OuLiPo was a French semi-surrealist school of super smart writers who loved wordplay, as well as questioning the structure of thought, memory and writing.

PS A lovely  quote from Pema Chodron I found later this morning:

We went for a walk this morning, but now it is a memory. Every situation is a passing memory. As we live our lives, there is a lot of repetition—so many mornings greeted, so many meals eaten, so many drives to work and drives home, so many times spent with our friends and family, again and again, over and over…So much will happen in the same way over and over again. It’s all an excellent opportunity to connect with this sense of each situation being like a memory.

-Pema Chodron from Start Where You Are: A Guide to Compassionate Living

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