Monday, August 10, 2020

To Write Something Memorable, Remember That People Forget

P.T. Phronk
A post by P.T. Phronk,
of Forest City Pulp fame

Can you remember the ending of the book you were reading this time last year?


I can’t. Maybe you can’t either. But I’m putting my neuroscientist hat on again to emphasize a fundamental fact about the human brain: it is normal to forget pretty much everything.


That applies doubly to non-essential reading. This article in The Atlantic describes some of the reasons why we forget a book we just read, or a series we just binge-watched, especially in a time when we offload much of our memorizing to smartphones like friggin’ cyborgs. It comes down to a lack of rehearsal. Our brains aren’t video cameras recording everything they see. Instead, they only retain information that is rehearsed multiple times, which is pretty smart, because why waste storage space on things that weren’t even important enough to come up more than once? But it’s also pretty dumb, because I wish I could remember what happened in the first season of The Umbrella Academy as I’m starting the second one. Why’s the knife guy so angry? Something to do with a monkey on the moon? Who knows.


Let’s not be too hard on our memories, though. Even on a sentence-by-sentence level, our brains are performing some pretty amazing feats every time we read—just think of how you accurately keep the beginning part of this long, m-dash-bloated sentence in your short-term memory the entire time you’re reading it, just to understand the point I’m trying to emphasize, which is that yes, your memory capabilities are pretty amazing.


Plus, we always remember something about every book we read. For me, and I suspect most people, it’s largely emotional. Even if I don’t remember a single character’s name, I can tell you if I liked a book or not. I can conjure up a muted facsimile of how it made me feel, whether it’s the existential dread of the best cosmic horror, or the frustration of a really bad ending—even if I don’t remember what actually happened in that ending.


I try to apply this to my writing. The particularities of every little description, character, and plot point don’t really matter as much as how they come together to invoke emotion. If something does need to be remembered, then I’d better repeat it a few times, and ideally that’s in service of a climactic collision between the current chapter and the memory of past chapters that delivers an emotional gut-punch. 


There’s a great Maya Angelou quote that sums this up better than my rambling blog post:


“I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”


In writing, in reading, and in life, we forget pretty much everything, but emotions will stick around for the long haul.

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