Memory: Touchstone of Our Lives

By Robert Israel

I write non-fiction pieces based on information gleaned from research and recorded interviews. Essential to the writing process is drawing on observations I may not have jotted down but have committed to memory. This began as a kind of an insurance policy:  mechanical devices failed, background materials were inadvertently deleted. Since then, I’ve incorporated memory into my work. When crafting a piece I prepare an outline, make a sketch, blend in the research and weave in the memorized impressions.

I trust my memories to be indelible, distinct and unchanging. Since childhood, I am able to recall entire conversations verbatim. This ability is accompanied by visual impressions, recorded in my mind’s eye. As a youngster, I began mentally cataloguing details of landscapes; physical attributes of people (even those who may have arbitrarily crossed my path); vivid aspects of foods, smells, colors, interiors and exteriors of rooms or buildings; items stacked on shelves, (and in what order); views from specific windows, and so on.  Over six decades, this has become how I tick. Moreover, I add to the catalogue daily, mentally sorting memories, then purposefully filing them internally, all without the slightest ache. For me, using memory is one of the keys to my writing process — like drawing water from the well.

Much debate has ensued about the veracity of using memories in writing, and whether writers should trust memories as sources, the argument being that memories are susceptible to lapses, and recalling a memory that may not be fully crystallized internally may subject those memories vulnerable to distortion or alteration. This hasn’t happened to me, but I can see how it might.

But what do other writers think about  the role of memory in our lives?

Ernest Hemingway’s Banal Story is a compelling example. In his short short, we learn about a legendary bullfighter, Manuel Garcia Maera, who died of pneumonia at age 28 in Andalusia in 1925. Hemingway draws on the tragedy of Maera to illustrate his take on the veracity of memories. In the story he pits pure memories – recorded by those who witnessed the bullfighter and committed impressions of him to memory — – against invasive or intrusive memories that succeed in corrupting the original source.

He writes:

Men and boys bought full-length colored pictures of him [Maera] to remember him by, and lost the picture they had of him in their memories by looking at the lithographs. .. After the funeral every one sat in the cafes out of the rain, and many colored pictures of Maera were sold to men who rolled them up and put them away in their pockets.

In Hemingway’s view, memories must be kept pure, hermetically sealed in one’s mind, preserved. Nowhere does Hemingway consider that even one of these men might have gazed upon Maera’s image as a means to possibly enhance his memories. He insists that the viewing the color photograph is akin to leaving that sacred space where pure memories are stored, and entering the profane world, where memories become distorted. The men and boys in his story have committed an act of defilement: they’ve wiped their memories clean.

A distinctly opposite view of the role of memory is described by author Christopher Isherwood in his 1939 story, Goodbye to Berlin. He writes:

I am a camera with its shutter open, quite passive, recording, not thinking. Recording the man at the window opposite and the woman in the kimono washing her hair. Someday, all this will have to be developed, carefully printed, fixed.

Isherwood likens our minds to visual and aural recording devices. What we see and experience is recorded with complete accuracy. What’s in front of us is captured, and, if we train ourselves (that’s where “thinking” comes in), Isherwood posits that we can then take what has been imprinted in our minds and reproduce – similar to a photogravure process – -the distinct features of what we’ve captured and committed to our memories.

The Mexican poet Octavio Paz endorses this notion, in his poem Same Time:


A couple embraces by an iron railing/she laughs and asks something/her question floats up and opens high above/At this hour there’s not a wrinkle in the sky/three leaves fall from a tree/someone whistles on /the corner/a window lights in the house across the way/How strange to know yourself as alive!/to walk /among people/with the open secret of being alive.

Paz, like Isherwood, takes it all in. Even the most mundane details – leaves that fall from a tree, the sound of someone whistling – are recorded, verbatim. Moreover, Paz is ecstatic about it. This is the joyous “open secret of being alive,” and, like a giddy child, Paz invites us all to partake in the pleasures this process of memory hunting and gathering engenders. Once we memorize, we are free to revisit and experience these tasty morsels anew. By repeatedly capturing sensual details and storing them in memory is to traffic in a vital, universal celebration.

It is not Hemingway’s either/or: either keep the memory alive by sealing it in the mind’s vault or run the risk of losing it simply by going outside the experience. Rather, as the other writers have testified, we all have the ability to absorb great quantities of memories, and, if we train ourselves, to call them forth – in their original, graphic details — at later dates.

The grief the men in Hemingway’s story experienced was the catalyst for their collective act of replacing their original, or pure, image of him.. He notes that the men and boys attended the late bullfighter’s funeral, where the photographs were distributed. The men were bereft, and in their grief, unsuspecting. Losing him was too much to bear. Better to cling to a graven image of the dearly departed in all his robust glory rather than to think of him as embalmed in his coffin.

But death does not trump memory. Ted Berrigan, in his poem Things to do in Providence, poignantly captures how memory can morph when facing a tragic loss:

The heart stops briefly when someone dies/a quick pain as you hear the news & someone passes/from your outside life to inside./Slowly the heart adjusts/to its new weight, & slowly everything continues, sanely.

Berrigan believes we are resilient. Even when we lose someone, our memories can accommodate the “new weight” of loss. It is as natural as Isherwood or Paz who celebrate the act of purposefully acquiring imagery to be used later, for reminiscences or for writing.

We are not porous beings. Memories do not flow into us and then exit the way air enters and leaves our lungs. Memories have staying power when they become rooted in our minds. They speak to us even in sleep, when we awaken abruptly from dreams we often wish we could dismiss.  Indeed, as we go about purposefully laboring at wakeful tasks, we push memories aside. Sometimes they haunt us, like specks of light captured on photographic paper, leaving their imprint as they travel upwards from the depths of our consciousness.

One thing is certain: we cannot silence our memories. If we accept that they are part of us, and find a way to continually collect them and return to them to learn what they contain, they will be useful to us as touchstones for our lives.

Robert Israel is a Boston-based writer. He can be reached at, or by visiting


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