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Does Memory Really Work That Way?

Does Memory Really Work That Way?

This blog post originally ran on the Tahoma Literary Review web site.

It’s a common technique among short story writers: develop background and depth by triggering a character’s memories. We’ve all seen it—an unusual or profound sensory moment brings on a flood of recollection, often from childhood; scenes from events, vivid colors and emotions that help the reader understand the forces that shaped the character.

Here’s an example: The room smelled of perfumed soap, the kind her grandmother used to place in dresser drawers to keep them from becoming musty. Grandmother had always told her… You get the idea.

Lately, though, I’ve noticed in the submission queue some stories in which the character’s memory is triggered during an incident of higher tension.

Those go something like this: John was losing the fight. When the bell sounded he stalked into the center of the ring, gloves raised. Seeing his opponent across from him, with that look of rage in his eyes, John recalled his father’s words about what to do when faced with seemingly insurmountable odds…

I feel the next sentence should begin with, “When he awoke in the hospital…” Any fighter who stops in the middle of a round to recall his father’s advice isn’t fighting, and is asking to be KO’ed. To fall into memory at such a time just doesn’t seem natural.

Memory is a powerful tool in creative writing, but the idea of triggered memories as a literary device got me thinking. Is that how memory really works? Since one of the goals of fiction is to create a sense of verisimilitude, writers ought to employ memory correctly or risk having their characters present as not quite real.

So I did a little research online. As I’d intuited, memory is rarely triggered during times of stress. Interestingly, stressful moments help us remember what is happening, but they make remembering the past much more unlikely. To get scientific for a minute, here’s the reason, as explained by The Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience: “Part of the explanation for this contradiction is the stress hormone cortisol. While increased levels of cortisol boost the formation of memories, they can hinder their recall.” The National Center for Biotechnology Information, part of the U.S. National Library of Medicine, backs this up: “Experiencing an acute highly stressful situation can interfere with subsequent information processing. This holds true particularly for those circumstances in which a stressed individual is required to retrieve previously stored information, while the acquisition of new information is shown to be particularly resistant to disruption in experimental animals.”

This actually makes sense, if you think of it in terms of our survival instinct. It’s in our interest to create memories during stressful or dangerous moments, as they may teach us how to avoid those times in the future. But it doesn’t work as well to try to remember something during stress, when the situation often demands we stay in the present.

It follows, then, that we tend to recall things more easily, whether pleasant memories or harsh ones, when we’re in a state of relative calm. That’s a lesson I’ll certainly keep in mind when I’m editing or writing—unless, of course, I’m editing or writing under stress.


Morning News

8/1/15: Tahoma Literary Review Volume 2, Issue 2 is now available. Great poetry, fiction, and nonfiction, as always. You can purchase a copy on Amazon, or download an e-file on our site.

11/2/14: Tahoma Literary Review co-Publisher Kelly Davio and I will present "The Literary Magazine Goes Digital" at the Northwest Bookfest in Kirkland, WA on Sunday, Nov. 2. There's still time to attend the conference, which runs Nov. 1-2 and includes two days of intense workshops (and lunch is included). You can register on their web site.

09/23/14: My story "How to Live at a Hotel" received an Honorable Mention in the Stoneslide Corrective Fiction Contest. Publisher Christopher Wachlin said he would also like to run it in an upcoming issue of Stoneslide .

08/19/14: Minneapolis, here we come. My friend Lori A. May's panel proposal for The Association of Writers and Writing Programs (AWP) annual conference has been accepted, so she and I and three other writers will present "Literary Citizenship: It’s Not About You," in April, 2015.

03/31/14: My story, "Plunge," is live at Stoneslide Corrective. They're a cool new journal and book publisher. I used a pseudonym for this one, for future marketing considerations, as they say.

02/28/14: I'll be moderating a panel titled "Stoking the Fire," about finding the writing life that's best for you, at the annual AWP conference on Feb. 28.

10/03/13: Here come da judge! I've been named final judge for the Adult Fiction category of the Detroit Working Writers 2014 conference. I'm excited, because judging the Poetry category will be US Poet Laureate Natasha Trethewey! Just being mentioned in the same sentence with her is an honor.

9/24/13: Woodward Press co-publisher Dora Badger and I will present a discussion on Self Publishing Options at the annual Rochester Writers Conference on Saturday, October 5 at Oakland University in Rochester, Michigan. Registration is still open for the event, so if you're in the area please join us.

8/1/13: The Association of Writers and Writing Programs (AWP) has accepted my panel proposal for the 2014 annual conference in Seattle. "Stoking the Fire: Maintaining the Passion for Writing When Success Eludes" will feature co-presenters Kobbie Alamo, Teri Carter and Q. Lindsey Barrett.

“Curtain Calls,” Available Now

Curtain Calls: A Novel of The Great War is my new book released through Woodward Press. The novel follows three American performers who travel to Paris in the summer of 1914, where they become caught in the passions and politics of a nation on the brink of war. Separated by events, they fall in with factions for and against the conflict, and move ever deeper into a mysterious underground world of political intrigues.

The Face Maker and other stories of obsession is my collection of short stories out now from Woodward Press. Kelly Davio, author of Burn This House, says. "In stories that range effortlessly across time period and place, Joe Ponepinto delivers the kind of masculine character we crave in literary fiction; these characters wrestle with the most essential questions of morality, and they bare-knuckle box with their human frailties." Find it on Amazon in paperback and Kindle. Want a signed copy? Email me at jpon (at) thirdreader (dot) com.

For the editing and tutoring services I offer, please see my companion site at Third Reader.

I am the co-Publisher and Fiction Editor of Tahoma Literary Review, a literary journal.

For links to some published stories, go to my Publications page.

Tahoma Literary Review Now Open for Submissions

TLR is officially open for submissions of poetry, fiction, and nonfiction. To find out more about this new (paying) literary journal, please visit us at Tahoma Literary Review.

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