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Craft of Writing, The Writer's Life

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.



About Joe Ponepinto

Co-publisher, with Kelly Davio, of Tahoma Literary Review. Author of "Curtain Calls," a featured Kirkus Review. Married to Dona. Dad to Henry, the coffee-drinkin' dog.


One thought on “Does Memory Really Work That Way?

  1. Dear Joe, I’m perplexed by the research you did! I recently passed through a period of extremely and incredibly high stress, and it caused me to revisit from moment to moment a similar state of tension I’d been in about 30 years ago! (And a couple of times in between.) Navel-gazing is, one always assumes, a feature of the easy life, but sometimes a trail of new psychological pain and stress seems to me to recall previous ways of dealing with similar situations, memories of solutions that didn’t work so well and etc., as if we were getting a new chance at passing an old test. I mean, I can only contradict the science by referring to my own experience, but that’s how it seems to me, anyway, at least sometimes.

    Posted by shadowoperator | November 3, 2016, 5:26 PM

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