Books

Do you Remember Our First Date? And, Other Questions That Can Get You Into Trouble

bows,fingers,hands,memories,metaphors,Photographs,remembering,reminders,string around finger,strings

Have you ever played “Memory War” with your spouse, best friend or significant other?  You know —  the game where you talk about old times, and one of you is right, and the other one is in trouble?  It’s true that memories can get a little muddied over time, and selective memory…well, all I can say is that you’re headed into rocky territory, my friends.  Proceed with caution.  In writing, it can be tricky, too.  What tidbits do you choose to incorporate or include from your character’s “past”?  Which questions do you answer? 

One of the things I did on “Hooky Day” was finish reading my book club’s selection of Still Alice (Lisa Genova) —  a good read about a brilliant educator who’s diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer’s Disease at the age of fifty.  For those who have witnessed a loved one with this condition, your heart will be wrung to pieces during this peek inside Alice’s mind as her symptoms worsen.  If you’re a hypochondriac, back away, or you’ll be self-diagnosed by page forty-five. 

What stayed with me after finishing this novel were Alice’s “memory questions” — five questions which she attempts to answer every day in an effort to gauge the progression of her disease.

  1. What month is it?
  2. Where do you live?
  3. Where is your office?
  4. When is Anna’s (her daughter’s) birthday?
  5. How many children do you have?

They were so basic, so emotionless.  I wondered…were these the questions the author would have asked herself if she was the one with the disease?  Most likely, she was just trying to stay true to what she thought her intellectual, no-nonsense character would think were logical checking points, and true to what the disease can, and does, take.

Regardless of the author’s intentions, I knew my questions would have been much different.  Yes, I would want to test my memories on the basics — time, place, and names — but, then I would want to go deeper.  Could I remember what made me, me

I would rather remember the details: the bubbly feeling of the “laugh attacks” I had as a kid, the movie I saw on my first date with my husband (Honey, there will be a quiz on this later), the anxious (and happy) rides home from the hospital with a new baby in tow, or the fact that I’m a sappy sucker for the movie, Father of the Bride (nope, that’s not it) — really all of those times that have earned the honor of becoming dinner table “remember when’s.”  Of course, Alzheimer’s doesn’t allow you to choose the information you keep, but what if it did?  What if you could pick a limited number of memories that stayed? 

As a writer, you have this power.  You’re often working with the selective memories of your characters, meaning, you are creating their “life’s” back story.  You can only work with what you’ve put in.  Most times, much of the information a writer produces in their character sketches never surfaces on the page.  It works as a starting point —  a background that helps shape the way the character speaks, reacts and moves the plot forward.  Increasing the memory details could bring a depth to characters which makes them more believable, more real, and more memorable. 

Forgetting the name of the movie you saw on your first date may result in a less than understanding wife come football Sunday (alert, alert).  But, if a reader can’t remember your characters…well, you might as well take that writing dream, and just forget it.

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What would your memory questions be?  As a writer, what do you want your readers to remember the most about your characters?

22 thoughts on “Do you Remember Our First Date? And, Other Questions That Can Get You Into Trouble”

  1. Thanks for mentioning this book, Amanda…will have to check it out!

    I don’t know what my questions would be…I have trouble remembering the kids’ names most days (I sometimes call them by the dog’s name!). Excellent food for thought, though…

    Wendy

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  2. I forget people’s birthdays all the time myself. I haven’t got kids, but I think I’d be like Wendy calling them the wrong name lol.
    No idea what my questions would be though. Have to think about it. About my characters, I want all the women to fancy my boy when they get to meet him one day. Okay, that’s a bit shallow…a deeper answer would be that I hope they care for him and all he’s been through.

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    1. Nothing shallow about fancying ;), Agatha, that’s a pretty strong connection, which you definitely want your readers to have to your character and the story. (Looking forward to hearing about your submissions, BTW).

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  3. This was amazing! I loved this post, and having just come across your blog I’m happy to say I’ll be sticking around for sure!!!!

    I think the five questions are brilliant to ask yourself, but what a scary situations to be in. I’m definitely intrigued by what this book is all about! Consider it in my TBR pile and the five questions I’d ask myself would be…

    1. What day is it?
    2. What is my husbands birthday?
    3. Where do I live?
    4. Where does my family live?
    5. Did I feed the cats? What are their names?

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  4. My husband has Alzheimer’s, the late onset kind that is slow developing. Those five questions are basic. Forgetting things that are not basic to your very being may be attributed to other causes than Alzheimer’s. All five of these questions may suddenly be unanswerable to an Alzheimer’s patient. Think how scared you would be if you couldn’t answer any of those five questions. This is what makes Alzheimer’s so awful. My husband is doing well. He does have episodes where all five questions leave him clueless and whimpering. The good news is that the episodes go away and memory comes back. Some people tell me that memory never comes back for Alzheimer’s patients, but I have experienced it with my husband. Either those people are wrong or God answered my prayers and restored his memory each time. There is no doubt in my mind that my husband has Alzheimer’s, but he has been very blessed and as his wife and caregiver so have I. Thank you for sharing. I am reluctant to read the book right now. I am sure you understand why.

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    1. Thanks for sharing your thoughts, Carol. I actually thought of you while I was writing this piece (since you had mentioned your husband’s condition in another comment), and was wondering what your take would be. So glad that your husband has experienced those moments of clarity! Best wishes~

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  5. A great, thoughtful post, Amanda. As writers we have to decide what our characters remember and how they remember it. It can be a tricky thing to establish memory from a character’s point of view. We ourselves can be selective in our memories and don’t always remember things truthfully. Sometimes that is an important point in a character’s memory, ie as a point of tension between friends or family members for example–when one person’s memory of an event doesn’t jive with anothers memory, and often results in drama…I feel like I recently read a novel with that as a plot point…but I can’t REMEMBER the name!

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    1. Thanks, Erika! I agree that selective and false memories can make for some good drama. Also, the untold experiences affect the character’s take on current events. If you remember the book, let me know! 🙂

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  6. As more of a writer wannabe right now, I think I would focus on describing feelings of my characters; how did they feel when this, that, or the other long-ago thing happen? Also the mundane; how they feel getting up in the morning, for instance. Some of my favorite books have emotion descriptions that I read and re-read, thinking how perfectly a feeling was described. My memory questions would revolve around feelings, too, somewhat how you described you would do. I’d want to remember how things felt, not just the things themselves. After saying all this, though, I have to mention that one of my favorite books of all time is “The Stranger” by Albert Camus…the main character is so emotionless. That’s must be why I like it so much, come to think of it; it’s so different in that respect that it’s mesmerizing. It almost gives me the feeling of “roller-coaster stomach” when reading it…hey, there’s a candidate for my personal list of memory questions. 😉

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    1. I like the feelings/emotions connection, too, L. The reactions of a person or character to different situations can rely a lot on their past experiences (memories), so no two responses will be exactly the same. Haven’t read “The Stranger” in awhile, so I may have to pull that one off the shelf again. Thanks!

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  7. wow…loved your post…and have begun hunting for the book…
    though im unaware of the intensity of Alzheimer my questions would realy be about experiences rather than activities…like first snowfall,last chocolate you ate,last cake you baked…something like that…

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  8. I keep hearing fabulous things about Still Alice, although one of those bits of feedback has to do with how heartbreaking it is. I’ll still have to add it to my list.

    I’m really glad you wrote this post. I’m in the earliest stages of piecing together a concept for a novel. I always struggle with how much to declare about the character at the outset, and how much to reveal over time. I’m a big fan of unpeeling a character slowly, often through dialog, but then, to your point, that limits the early plot.

    How do you deal with that?

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  9. I too forget what day it is on a regular basis, so I’m not sure what I’d ask myself if I had to remember to remember something. Maybe the first band I fell in love with? (The Ramones). Character-wise, I tend to focus more on what they’re thinking than what they remember…and I’d hope they’re memorable for not being on top of stuff all the time. I hate characters like that…

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  10. Just today I forgot a dear friends birthday for most of the day….hate it when that happens.
    Your post made me think of an old Irish quote my granny use to say “May you never forget what is worth remembering, nor ever remember what is best forgotten”

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  11. Great post, Amanda. Yes, the questions regarding dates and time are a bit clinical, but I think those (and people’s names — groan!) are the first to go, when your memory begins to travel south. The memories that endure the most are the ones from a long time ago…

    I would love for readers to remember my protagonist’s angst about the changes in her life, and how she learned to face them/live with them.

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  12. You’re the first person I’ve seen who has broached the top of character memories and how important it is to be selective in what we show our readers. I know when I’m working on a novel, I try very hard to limit my character’s memories to focus on the issues that will move the story forward.

    Lovely post!

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  13. I haven’t read ‘Still Alice’, but your description of it reminds me of ‘Iris’ (1998), a memoir of his wife Iris Murdoch, celebrated British intellectual, philosopher, writer, by her widower, John Bayley.
    An account of their life together and the effect of Alzheimer’s on her & on their relationship, this is a moving, humane & harrowing book.
    The questions you list are, as others have suggested, the clinical questions, ie, the questions asked by specialists as part of the diagnosis of the disease. They are the type of thing Alzheimer sufferers typically forget, or become confused about. All of us forget or misremember, but there are particular patterns of confusion typical to Alzheimer sufferers.
    As for memory in fiction, yes, I agree, this is very often an important element. For example, you may have a character who obsesses over real or imagined mistreatment as a child, & who blames his present plight on that,ie, has a chip on his shoulder; the writer shows you those mental processes, & also shows you that this attitude,this failure to take responsibility leads to the same mistakes: a slippery slope.
    Others might use memory as a suspense device: you get glimpses of a protagonist’s uneasiness arising from certain objects, or places, names etc.
    My own memories would be:
    The magic moments of childhood
    Feelings on birth of own children
    Ditto of grandchildren
    Happy times with all the above
    And, I suppose, that feeling you get when you realise that someone you love loves you back
    Don’t really remember these but know they were good!

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  14. Great post. I seem to remember ridiculously insignificant things from years ago, but then when someone asks me on Monday what I did on the weekend, I really have to use a bit of effort to remember the past two days.
    As a writer, remembering is vital though. You made a great point. If we forget the details of plot and character etc, the narrative can get very messy.

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