Ghosts of Writers Past

It is summer, 1999. I remember standing on the steps of the townhouse I had grown up in, July heat in the air. I had just turned 17, and it seemed that all around me, a confluence of events was taking place: junior year was turning into senior year, the old century was turning into the new millennium, and I was changing every day – into more adult than child.

The thunderstorm had been building all afternoon, and there had been a mugginess in the air that was also faintly electric. Standing under the overhang above the front stoop, I could safely watch the first fat drops of rain hit the hot, newly-tarred empty parking spaces, could watch the steam rise from the pavement under the blinding onslaught of a quick summer storm. From the potted plant next to me arose the heady smell of white jasmine flowers…

I can close my eyes and remember that day as vividly as if it were yesterday.

Last year, a friend mused over a late night phone conversation that I live too much in the past and too eagerly for the future, forgetting at times to live in the present. It’s an observation many friends have made about me over the years. It’s true that I am indeed a preemptive sentimentalist: I started getting nostalgic about high school while still in 11th grade and began hoarding memories of my time in Germany while I still had eight months left before I returned to the States. But for some reason, coming from him, it bothered me.

I’ve been looking for an explanation since that conversation last summer, and have only just lately realized that it all goes back to that day in 1999: the day I decided that I wanted to tell stories as often as possible. No photograph or recording could ever capture that moment the way my mind could, and as I took it all in – the rain, the heat, the jasmine flowers, the feeling of standing on a precipice – all I wanted was to set it down on paper, to record it for others to read. I am a writer, you see, and my memories coupled with my imaginings make up the core of my writing.

To me, all writers have some form of synesthesia: a neurological instance in which the stimulation of one sense ignites an involuntary reaction in another. While some synesthetes see sound as color or taste what they can physically feel, to me, memory ignites a thrumming in every one of my senses. Words hold auditory, sensory pleasure, and memory is what helps my brain make those connections.

In her blog posts about Joshua Foer’s book Moonwalking with Einstein, Maria Konnikova discussed the impact of memory on creativity. Says Konnikova: “One of the central elements of creativity is the ability to link disparate points into a cohesive (and novel) whole. That’s the type of creativity that brings about that most famous of moments, the eureka, light-bulb-like realization. An integration of unrelated ideas in an unexpected way—that in retrospect makes complete sense[….]Memory, then, is crucial after all. Take an impoverished memory, and you get impoverished associations, shoddy pulling together of information, little or no insight. In short, impoverished memory is impoverished creativity. As Foer told me, ‘I think the notion is, more generally, that there is a relationship between having a furnished mind (which is obviously not the same thing as memorizing loads of trivia), and being able to generate new ideas. Creativity is, at some level, about linking disparate facts and ideas and drawing connections between notions that previously didn’t go together. For that to happen, a human mind has to have raw material to work with.’ Absent the raw material, absent the potential for insight.”

Perhaps that’s all fancy talk for my stubborn inability to change. Perhaps I prefer the remembrances of the past and imaginings of the future to the drudgery of all the immediate yesterdays, todays, and tomorrows. Perhaps I am simply incapable of living in the moment. But perhaps I am also living in the moment differently, recording and observing, hoarding things away for all the stories I want to tell.


(Photo Source: Nana B Agyei)


Zainab Chaudary works in politics by day and is a writer by night. Her blog, The Memorist, ruminates upon travel, religion, science, relationships, and the past, present, and future experiences that make up a life. She tweets at @TheMemorist. As “The Geekologist,” Zainab also writes a monthly column for the blog “Love, Inshallah.”

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