Wednesday, November 13, 2013

A Map of Memory

My framed mixed media art inspired by Possession.

Last night I had the completely thrilling experience of listening to my favorite author lecture at Lenoir-Rhyne University as part of their fabulous Visiting Writers program. My favorite author is A.S. Byatt. The gathering was very intimate. I got to sit right up by her chair in the front row, thanks to Jerry always making sure we're early to things. It was an amazing lecture. Those Lutherans know how to party!

As I related in my last post, I became hooked on Byatt in high school when I read her novel, Possession, A Love Story. Later, in college, I used to save my money and haunt the bookstore at the Greenville mall waiting for her next novel to be published. When I visited Paris' iconic Shakespeare and Co. bookstore I found the one Byatt book I didn't have; her first novel. I think it's fair to say she shaped my brain in some large part, because I immersed myself in her created worlds so thoroughly during my formative intellectual years.

In person, A.S. Byatt is very much as she seems through her writing, at least in my opinion. She reminded my forcibly of an English version, rather than Scandinavian and Swiss, of my grandmother. My grandmother was an English professor but her interests ranged through everything from home crafts like tatting and cooking to botany to physics and beyond.

A close-up of my version of Possession.

Do you ever meet someone, or hear someone speak, or read something someone's written and think to yourself, "Exactly!" ? It is as if that person reached inside your head and pulled your own private thoughts out and expressed them just as you yourself would. You just connect with them instantly. Such moments are exceedingly rare for me. My brain just stubbornly and persistently refuses to operate as other people's, at least as far as I can tell. If I am in some group, my opinion will almost always be the opposite of that group's consensus. If everyone I know just loves  some person and thinks he or she is wonderful or funny or nice, I will almost certainly find that person as annoying as a cheese grater rubbing on my nerves. If I relate my memory of some shared event, the other people involved will remember it differently. Everyone who has ever lived with me in my life says I'm hard to get along with and complains about me, and I find constantly trying to shape myself into some alien ideal to please others quite exhausting. I certainly try not to be difficult; I just think differently and don't come to the same conclusions as most people. I know part of the reason I began writing this blog is to cast my thoughts out into the world and hope to find those few people who are like me.

The first time I read Byatt's work, however, I felt that rare, strong connection. She is what Anne Shirley called "a kindred spirit". And yes, I am aware Anne Shirley (from Anne of Green Gables) is fictional, but I always found her a far more satisfactory friend than most real people. That is not to say I am very like A.S. Byatt herself. She talked quite a bit about her own writing process, and it is completely different from mine. I hope that doesn't spell doom for my own work. I can recognize, however different we are, (she is certainly much more intelligent than I), we both possess the same sort of brain.

She is admittedly not at all musical. Her writing process is somewhat synesthetic and involves equating the written work in terms of color. I find that quite interesting. You might think I would do that myself, having also majored in art, but I don't. I am synesthetic with sound, especially music. When I am working on a piece I am always listening to music, and occasionally listening to talk radio or television. Months or even years later, I can look at the finished work and hear, in each certain part, the song that was playing or the radio or T.V. as I painted it. And conversely, each section of song or sound becomes that particular brushstroke I was creating as I hear the sound again.

 In my college design class, one of our assignments was to design a book cover. I chose Possession, of course, and created a mixed media illustration for the cover. It is my distillation of the story into visual form, and in my opinion it remains one of my best works. It was very interesting to me that Byatt doesn't consider her novel set irrevocably on its course until she has its "color code" in her mind. I don't see colors as I write, but I do see the essence of the story as an image like the one I created for Possession.

A.S. Byatt's lecture concerned the process of the brain making memory and the structure of the working brain as it relates to the writing process. She showed many slides of dendrites and neurons, the actual formation of thoughts. She also showed slides of works by Matisse and other artists and talked about color theory and complementary colors and talked quite a bit about metaphor and what that might look like as it occurs in your brain. It was fantastically interesting.

On the way to the lecture, Jerry and I listened to a collection of Nina Simone C.D.s he just gave me and I heard one song I haven't before, where Nina wonders if she has been reincarnated because she dreams about a different life. That went straight through me to my heart, because I also have complicated dreams of an entirely different existence, where I live in a place unknown to me in real life. These dreams are crystal clear glimpses into a life in which I live with different people than in real life, have children who don't actually exist, visit places I've never actually seen. Yet, in the dream, the people are familiar, I love the children as much as I love my real children, the places are solid and vivid and reappear again and again. I was extremely interested to hear someone else sing a song about something that felt so individual and unique to me.

Then, A.S. Byatt shared a memory she has of her own babyhood, in which her infant self is lying in a "pram" looking out through the cover at the slanted roof of a shed, but in the memory she has no words to describe these things. She said experts on memory she knew in her university days told her it isn't possible to have a memory without language and she wonders if anyone else has memories like that. I wished I could raise my hand and tell her I have a memory like that, so it certainly is possible. I can remember being trapped by straps holding me down. I can see a light above me and I know if I can just reach myself up I would be able to see more, but I can't raise myself up despite arching my back and feeling the straps dig into my chest. All I can see is a blank rectangle that cuts through the light. When I have that memory I actually feel the desperation of my entrapment and the futility of escape and a great wave of anger. Then I can remember looking forward at two curved dark shapes and my mother leaning between them and reaching through them for me. I now realize this memory is of riding in the car in California and being strapped too tightly into my car seat. The light I want to reach is the window I wanted to look through. I told my mother about this memory once and she said, "I remember that! You would not stop screaming, all the way to the beach." So, although I don't remember crying, all those emotions I couldn't express with language were coming out as infant screams. I have, as my typography professor used to remark, "the gift of gab", and I started talking at 6 months of age and spoke in sentences by 13 months, so this memory must be prior to that when I was very young indeed!

I found it wonderful to share a common mental experience with two people otherwise completely disconnected from me. This morning, as I was nearly run down in the pre-school parking lot by a woman barreling diagonally across the spaces in her car while looking backwards over her shoulder and talking on her phone, I was very glad I now have the memory of last night. I can die happy! Incidentally, if you ever want to live dangerously, drive the pre-school carpool gauntlet. You take a bunch of chronically-distracted, sleep-deprived, perpetually-late women and put all of them in giant vehicles in one parking lot and the result isn't pretty!

Anyway, if you ever have the chance to attend one of Byatt's lectures, I think you should jump on it. She is just a remarkable thinker. Of course, if you aren't familiar with her work, do read some. I will warn you, her books aren't light reading. I remember her book I tried to read after I first had children took me forever to get through and I barely remember any of it. It made me really sad to think I'm getting too stupid to read my favorite author. I just have too many distractions pulling my concentration away to focus adequately on her writing. When I am able to shut myself away, though, her work is the very best kind I know, where you open the meaning of each sentence like a Chinese puzzle box, and everything means both one thing and another. Jerry bought me a copy of Ragnarok, her Norse myth I haven't yet read, and A.S. Byatt signed it for me. I guess I will escape to my new chair and begin that tale!

Me, with A.S. Byatt

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