Friday, May 7, 2010

Tuxedo Man: A Writing Journal: Part One

I started writing fiction professionally in 1984 and I've had twenty-three novels published. Looking back, it's all a fog. Occasionally (perhaps shamefully) I read one of the books I've written as if I'd just found it on a rack, and remarkably, it's just as if I'd found it on a rack. I have no memory of writing the thing, the plots surprise, the jokes are amusing (or not) the characters are there to be discovered. I'm always a little amazed by this. Who wrote this stuff?

I don't keep a journal and I have no literary correspondents, so there's no extant record (with one exception) of whatever passes for my creative process. So I thought that I might try to put down, for whoever is interested what it's like to work on novels. Perhaps it is not entirely coincidental that the book I'm currently writing is about memory. Tuxedo Man is the story of a young man who has global retrograde amnesia. Despite what one sees on the soap operas, GRA is one of the rarest of neurological disorders, with no more than a few dozen cases recorded in the medical literature. This is because human memory seems to be composed of several independent systems. We have, for example, episodic memory, which is what purports to be the record of our daily lives, the first day of school, the first kiss, Grandma's apple pie, and also the events that mark our lives—Pearl Harbor, VE Day, the Kennedy assassination, 9/11 and so on. This is the kind that is typically destroyed by Alzheimer's disease

Semantic memory is about recognizing the nature of the world, all the facts and associations we pick up and retain from the time, at about age three, when our brains are mature enough to store this material. Paris is the capital of France, money can be exchanged for goods, a book is something you read, and the whole nine yards of information that enables us to function in society. Perceptual memory, in contrast, is what lets us recognize the familiar, or identify the strange. It gets us across the bedroom in the dark and distinguishes people we know from strangers. Brain lesions in particular areas of the brain can knock this out, and then you get the Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat. Finally there is implicit memory, which lies below consciousness, and resides in the body and its reflexes. How do you ride a bike, climb a ladder, use a knife and fork, tie a bow? Hard to explain in words when you think about it, but you can do it.

Different scientists break down the parts of memory in different ways, but all agree that it's amazingly complex and still, after a century of probing, recalcitrant to simple explanations. It's not at all like a hard disk. It's the most fascinating thing in the world.

Next: Tuxedo Man—where he came from, how he grew.

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