A long time ago, I read an article where the writer suggested that Hemingway killed himself not because of his depression, but because of the treatment for his depression. The suggestion was that the electroshock had erased a good deal of Hemingway’s memory, and that a writer without memories is not a writer—and that that loss provoked Hemingway’s hand. However, much information has come out regarding his long-deteriorating mental and physical state prior to his suicide, and the loss-of-memory issue might have only played a minor part, if any.
The reason I bring that up is because I was down in Southern California this past weekend, spending some time with my mother to honor what would have been my father’s 94th birthday, his first birthday after his recent death. We went out to the graveside and saw the stone for the first time. My mother, in her natively collected and humorous way, remarked that it was a little odd to see her own name on the stone, which awaits what I hope is a long time to make claim to its inscription.
During the visit, my mother, sister and I shared memories of my father, a couple of which were new to me. That conversation in turn pushed me to rummage through my memory attic, blowing the dust off some crusted considerations of my boyhood long ago. It struck me that I hadn’t made good use of some of the eccentric characters I’ve known over time, many of whom are easy subjects for the kind of tales that evoke a “No way! That couldn’t have happened!” response from astonished or amused listeners.
Memories Are Writers’ Clay
It’s clear to me that most lives, whether you were raised in a dusty Ethiopian village of 100 souls or born to a gilded Manhattan penthouse, are suffused with character and incident that could fill books, if you selectively shaped the telling. And that working of the clay of character or incident needn’t be exclusive to fiction’s floor—the mad workings of the human animal are prime frameworks for engaging essays as well. (Note that libel issues can sometimes constrain a telling, though with the right makeup and hat, you can hide your pawn in plain sight on the narrative chessboard.)
I’ve seen enough peculiar and striking expression of the vagaries of our species to fill the memory banks—I’m going to start withdrawing some so the investment pays off. Poke around in your skull a bit, look at some old photographs, ask a relative about the time your great-aunt poured a drink on Maurice Chevalier’s head at a dinner party. Memories are material from which writers weave.