Posted in Writing

Creative Memory and Creative Amnesia and Why They Matter

photo of a colander
I’ve a memory like a kitchen colander (Photo:

Three times in the last couple of days I’ve been struck by a phenomenon that never fails to surprise me:

while blessed with total recall for insignificant events as far back as my childhood, I also have a prodigious power to forget things

A colleague from my last corporate job had a theory that our brains had a fixed capacity, and once they were full, the rest would just spill out over the edges and be lost. As working mums, we had a lot to remember, both at work and at home. We wished someone would invent a memory chip to expand our brains’ hard drives.

A Mixed Blessing for an Author

New cover of Marry in Haste
Now, that looks familiar…

In one respect, it’s a good thing for an author to have a good memory to provide plenty of raw material to inspire and inform creative writing. Many of my short stories are triggered by a phrase or scene recalled from decades ago.

The first story in Marry in Haste, for example, is the result of a conversation with colleague in my first decent office job. In between photocopying our faces for the informal gallery that adorned an office partition (well, it could have been worse), we were discussing boyfriends. She asserted that she couldn’t marry anyone who was not a vegan, immediately limiting her potential partners to a tiny minority of the population. That notion stayed with me for decades.

photo of a mayfly
Sometimes it’s handy to have a memory as short-lived as a mayfly (Photo: Morguefile)

But it’s also important for an author to be able to forget the precise words and even the shape of a story they’ve written. This selective amnesia is necessary for self-editing purposes. If you try to tweak a story that you know so well you can recite it, it’s very hard to spot errors and potential for improvement.

Hence the standard advice to aspiring writers to put your finished manuscript in a drawer for six weeks and come back to edit it fresh. Scientific research proves that if you leave it long enough to erode detailed recollection, you can edit the words as easily as if they’ve been written by someone else.

Three Times Unlucky

I’ve had striking evidence of this effect three times recently: twice regarding my own writing and once a writer friend’s.

  1. ALLi logo
    Great source of author networking opportunities – click the image for more info

    The writer friend emailed me to pitch an idea for the ALLi Authors Advice Centre blog of which I’m Commissioning Editor. She said she’d messaged me last year about the idea, but she’d never written the proposed post and would I like to take her up on it now?

    Normally, my first thought at times like this is mea culpa, assuming it was me who’s forgotten to act, but the post that she mentioned had stuck in my mind because it was a very interesting topic. A quick search revealed that I’d published the post last September, so she must have written it.

  2. Cover of Repent at Leisure
    Coming soon (when I can find the rest of the manuscript)

    I made her feel better when I revealed that only the previous day, I’d come across the draft of a story I’d written for my current work-in-progress collection, Repent at Leisure (sequel to Marry in Haste).

    I tend to write my collections in bits and pieces over many months, till I’ve saved up enough stories on a single theme to fill a book. Not only had I forgotten I’d written the story, but I couldn’t remember the plot, and had to read to the end to find out what happened.

    Maybe I have the equivalent of the Tailor of Gloucester‘s mice, who set to work in my study when I go to bed. No wonder my cat spends so much time sitting on the windowsill by my desk.

  3. Cover of How to Get Your Self-published Book into Bookstores
    My current non-fiction work-in-progress is a commission from the Alliance of Independent Authors

    Last Friday, unable to find my handwritten manuscript of a final chapter for a new non-fiction book, I spent the morning tidying my study in the hope that it would turn up. It was nowhere to be seen, and I began to wonder whether I was suffering from false memory syndrome. Was my recollection of writing it just wish fulfillment?

    Only when I opened the Word file of the nearly-finished manuscript did I discover that not only had I written it, but I’d also typed it in already. The reason I couldn’t find my handwritten draft was that it had departed my study in the recycling box, surplus to requirements once I’d typed it up.

Image of mice sitting round sewing by candlelight
The Tailor of Gloucester’s anonymous assistants, who worked while he slept (from the eponymous Beatrix Potter book)

And the Moral Is…

So, rather neatly, there are three morals in here.

  1. If you’re a writer, use that all-important cooling-off period to distance yourself from your story – you will edit it all the better once you can no longer recite the manuscript word for word.
  2. Second, tidy your desk, because you never know what you might find.
  3. Third, don’t worry too much if you forget the odd thing. It might lead to a pleasant surprise later. Provided you know the day of the week and the name of the Prime Minister, you’re good to go, though goodness knows, that is getting more challenging, the way the UK politics are heading.

And what of my vegan friend? Eventually she weakened and married a lovely vegetarian. I do so love a happy ending.

Image of mouse sitting on a cotton reel reading paper, from the Tailor of Gloucester

For a complete list of my short story collections, click here.

To find out more about my non-fiction books for authors, click here

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English author of warm, witty cosy mystery novels including the popular Sophie Sayers Village Mysteries and the Gemma Lamb/St Bride's School series. Novels published by Boldwood Books, all other books by Hawkesbury Press. Represented by Ethan Ellenberg Literary Agents. Founder and director of the Hawkesbury Upton Literature Festival. Course tutor for Jericho Writers. UK Ambassador for the Alliance of Independent Authors. Lives and writes in her Victorian cottage in the heart of the beautiful Cotswold countryside.

5 thoughts on “Creative Memory and Creative Amnesia and Why They Matter

  1. This is really interesting. I often come across bits of writing I’d forgotten about and they nearly always turn up at the ‘right’ time. I’ve got a fairy door in my workroom so maybe I get a little extra help.

  2. Great post! Glad to know I’m not the only one who has become slightly forgetful. 😉 And I absolutely agree with you about setting things aside before coming back later to edit them afresh. I always seem to miss a typo or two when reviewing my work immediately after writing it, because when I read it back, I’m reading what I expect to see rather than what’s actually there!

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