Writing and remembering: paradoxes of memory, imagination and fiction in stories about lives

Neale, Derek (2011). Writing and remembering: paradoxes of memory, imagination and fiction in stories about lives. Literature Compass, 8(12) pp. 951–961.

DOI: https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1741-4113.2011.00843.x


This survey concentrates on a refined corner of life writing and poetics – writers of various genres talking and writing about what and how they write. It considers the implications of the relationship between narrative and memory within life writing and fiction practice, reviewing potential connections between creative writing, critical theory and theories of mind. It focuses in particular on the under-explored borderland between fiction and autobiography, and uses illustrations from writers who are both novelists and memoirists. Writers often suggest that it is impossible or undesirable to narrate the creative process – while paradoxically trying to talk about it. They resist using theoretical terms about their work, yet their considerations often reveal an idiosyncratic technical eloquence, together with an intimate, sometimes paradoxical relationship between writing and remembering. Some writers experience elements of déjà vu, as if they find or than make, some part of what they write (a character, a voice, a situation); part of the writing process is willed, part not. Other writers declare paradoxical ways in which memory and imagination are deployed in their writing. This essay reviews the notion of writing as an act of memory. The discussion looks at narrative and recall in tandem, referring to relevant theories of consciousness and memory – including those put forward by Adam Phillips in On Flirtation and Henri Bergson in Matter and Memory. The main focus is on writers’ testimonies. Authors discussed include Jean Paul Sartre, Paul Auster, Hilary Mantel, Graham Greene, Lorna Sage, Andrew Cowan, Richard Holmes and Jenny Diski. The essay uses fictional and autobiographical illustrations and transcripts from recorded interviews with writers. It examines the collaboration between narrative memory and associative memory in the writing process, as well as suggesting possible future lines of research into the borderland between fiction and life writing.

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