Me, at pencilholder:
Some people have remarkable perceptual memories, for example; they seem to take in automatically and to recollect without the least difficulty all the rich details of a summer holiday, the scores of people met, the way they dressed, their talk—the thousand incidents that make up a day on the beach. Others retain no memories (and perhaps lay down no memories) of such matters, but have huge conceptual memories, in which vast amounts of thought and information are retained, in highly abstract, logically ordered form. The mind of the novelist, the representational painter, perhaps tends to the former; the mind of the scientist, the scholar, perhaps to the latter (and, of course, one may have both sorts of memory, or varying combinations). Pure perceptual memory, with little or no conceptual disposition or capacity, may be characteristic of some autistic savants.
—Oliver Sacks, An Anthropologist on Mars
I was struck by this a few days ago while reading this fantastic book. For a long time I’ve been apologizing to friends about “having a bad memory.” I mix up chronology, forget details, and smear entire months into a sort of impressionistic haze. I read novels and remember loving them, but I’m awful at talking about them afterwards, since I forget so much of the plot, and even names of major characters (especially in first-person perspective books). I’ve been working hard to improve that—repeating important things to myself, writing a lot of notes—but much still escapes me.
On the other hand, I have a very good memory for cooking techniques, programming languages, music theory, and other systematic knowledge. I worry that because I remember these well, and interpersonal things poorly, that I often seem to not care about my friends, or people I meet, when I care intensely.
This bad memory also extends to writing - I would have a hard time writing descriptive stories about what I did yesterday or even the day before, so every detail is a fabrication, even if the theme of whatever I’m writing is coming from my own life. It’s exhausting, because to get to those details I have to construct an awful lot of mental scaffolding that never shows up in the piece. I’d say each of the first two short stories here (for a first draft) took almost eight hours of effort. That’s about a word a minute.
I’m happy with the way the two “real” stories I wrote here came out, but I’m finding that to write well requires so much of my time and effort that I’m not able to work, write, and have the life I want to. I’d have to stop talking to people, going to places, and doing other things in order to produce writing I’m happy with. And then, what would there be to write about?