The Human Condition:

Memory and Imagination – January 12, 2020

One hand

As I think through the way I go about constructing the elements of a story line for a novel and then determining the next actions, images, details, and anecdotes that will support the plot, I have made an interesting discovery: these things pop into my mind—presumably from the subconscious1—in the same way that random memories come to mind.

This act of remembering in this way is different from sitting down, at least mentally, and asking myself what I can recall from a past experience: my graduation day, my wedding day, or any memorable event that is supposed to “stick in the mind.” No, this is the sort of sense, image, or snatch of conversation that surprises me when I’m doing something completely different: a flash of the roadway where I was driving on a trip three years ago, or the image of a house I once visited, or a fragment of what someone once said to me. These things come “unbidden” and when they are least expected.

The difference with the ideas, images, and dialog fragments that come to me for my work in progress is, first, these imagined things did not happen, have never happened, and usually have no relationship to—are not an echo of—anything that has ever happened to me. Second, and unlike the act of forced recall, I find myself unable to sit down, mentally, and ask myself about what should happen after the starting point of a story, or what image or sound or sensory perception would best illustrate the next action scene, or what the characters would say in the situation. I can pose to myself the question of what should happen next, but then I have to go off and take a walk or bike ride, or get my morning shower (warm water hitting my right shoulder and the side of my neck seems to be especially inducive to creative thoughts), and otherwise let my subconscious mull the problem. And then later, out of nowhere, like an unbidden memory, I know what the next action, image, or dialog bit should be.

So it’s apparent that both memory and imagination—at least in my case, and in dealing with a developing story—come from the same place, the subconscious. But the one is a reflection of something that actually happened, while the other is a bit of imagery or dialog with no context other than the mental structure of the novel I’m writing at the time.2

I have noted for many years, going back to my time as a teenager, something I call “the Return.” This is an instance of my hearing a piece of music and then later—two to four days, usually—having it pop into my mind, again unbidden. I will find myself singing or humming the melody or, more often, just “hearing” it in my head. I have also noted that the speed of the Return is linked to my mental and physical health. When I am in good spirits and feeling well, the music will come back in two days—but seldom less. When I am feeling poorly, the return might take four days or not happen at all.

For comparison, the return of a random memory—a place image or a conversation—that occurs while I’m doing something else might take two to a dozen years, while the subconscious production of a scene, action, image, or dialog bit that I have posed to myself for consideration generally takes less than two days. So the two processes—memory and imagination—while alike, are not identical.

Interestingly, none of this has anything to do with dreaming, which apparently comes from another part of the brain. While I have vivid, busy, and sometimes frustrating dreams—but seldom what you would call nightmares—few of them have to do with specific memories, although some are linked to places in my memory, specifically two of the houses we lived in when I was a child. No dream has yet produced anything related to one of my books—not a usable plot point, image, or bit of dialog. However, I occasionally wake up, after dreaming whatever dreams I had, and suddenly get an idea that might help the current book along. Only once in all my experience did I dream of a character in one of my books, and that was my first novel, written as a teenager, and the dream occurred about two years after I finished writing it.

All of this might mean something to a psychologist, or maybe a neurologist, but to me this is just the way my mind works. And the most important conclusion—at least for me—is that I cannot force the construction of a plot or of any particular part of a story. I have no secret list of plot outlines,3 no mechanism for character generation, nor other out-of-the-box novel-writing aids. The story comes from the dark—as in hidden or unilluminated, rather than foreboding or evil—places of my mind.

The story, characters, inciting incidents, and resulting actions have to come from someplace else—outside me, inside but hidden … the gods … the stars—in order for me to believe in them as real people doing real things that have meaning. Yes, I know that they are made up—but I have to forget that part for the story to live inside me. And once I have the outline—that composite of structure and belief—as well as a notion of the associated actions, sense images, and dialog, I can let the magic happen.

Magic? That’s when I sit down at the keyboard, put my mind on its invisible track, forget myself, and let the story flow through me.

1. See Working With the Subconscious from September 30, 2012.

2. Curiously, works that I wrote in the past, stopped writing, and put an end to, do not generate new imagery or dialog. I might suddenly wake up and recall a word, image, or dialog line that I once put on the page and now know to be an error, or lacking, or incompletely linked to something else in the novel—and usually this is still related to the work in progress. But I don’t generate new ideas and directions for the old books. My internal mental process seems to know when what’s done is done.

3. I’ve heard it said that there are only seven plots in all of storytelling. If so, I’d like to know what they are. Whenever I hear this, the examples given are so general (“Well, there’s boy-meets-girl …” or “the hero’s journey …”) as to be practically useless. Once you’ve picked that type of story, then the real work of generating setting, character, incident, and action begins.