A Bad Rememberer

Note: I wrote the first part of this entry over a year ago. After finding it in the “pending” section of my posts, I decided to add onto it and post it now.

This morning I found a fitting quotation in a New Yorker interview:

When it comes to memories of that iconic type, memories that are burned into you, I have maybe ten or so from my childhood. I’m a bad rememberer of situations. I forget almost everything as soon as it happens. But when it comes to landscapes and rooms, it’s different. I think I remember every single room that I have been in from the age of seven. What I did was to place myself in those rooms, and when I started to write about them it was like unlocking a thousand small doors, all leading further into childhood. It’s all there, you know, inside us, it’s just a matter of finding the way.


This quotation really resonates with me and my feelings about remembering. The idea of finding the way to remember is significant for my Farm project. One of the reasons that I’m revisiting my archival materials and the footage that Scott and I shot over a decade ago is so that I can hopefully unlock some doors into my past.

I also like the idea of the bad rememberer. As I think about it more, all sorts of questions about remembering are popping into my head. I wonder, what does it mean to be a good rememberer? Do they remember past experiences just like they actually happened? Is that even possible? 

Since writing these statements above, I encountered a very different take on the “bad rememberer.” In an essay for Rookie Magazine, Zadie Smith embraces her bad memory and a “miasma of non-memory”:

I have the kind of brain that erases everything that passes, almost immediately, like that dustpan-and-brush dog in Disney’s Alice in Wonderland sweeping up the path as he progresses along it. I never know what I was doing on what date, or how old I was when this or that happened—and I like it that way. I feel when I am very old and my brain “goes” it won’t feel so very different from the life I live now, in this miasma of non-memory, which, though it infuriates my nearest and dearest, must suit me somehow, as I can’t seem, even by acts of will, to change it.

Zadie Smith

I like this idea of non-memory and Smith’s willingness to accept embrace it. I especially like how she links it to her fiction writing in the next paragraph of her essay:

I wonder if it isn’t obliquely connected to the way I write my fiction, in which, say, a doormat in an apartment I lived in years ago will reappear, just as it once was, that exact doormat, same warp and weft, and yet I can’t say when exactly I lived there, who I was dating or even if my own father was alive or dead at the time. Perhaps the first kind of non-memory system—the one that can’t retain dates or significant events—allows the other kind of memory system to operate, the absence of the first making space for the second, clearing a path for that whatever-it-is which seems to dart through my mind like a shy nocturnal animal, dragging back strange items like doormats, a single wilted peony, or a beloved strawberry sticker, not seen since 1986, but still shaped like a strawberry and scented like one, too.

Zadie Smith

I wonder, is this “other kind of memory system” only suitable for fiction? Why? What sort of truth/truths can we communicate by conjuring up beloved fragments of memory?

Since it’s early in the morning and I’m running out of time, I’ll leave that last question unexplained…for now. I plan to interrogate it further soon.