Reminiscence Bumps: self-mythology and the landscapes of the mind
by Eleanor Holmes
When I think about the landscapes of the mind, I recall the undulations of the brain’s surface. The ridges and valleys of cortex, the gyri and sulci I had learnt about in my neuroanatomy classes aged nineteen. Those white plastic tubs we eased open to reveal two, pale grey hemispheres floating in straw-coloured formaldehyde. That clinical but distinctly organic smell of burnt rubber, astringency and wax. How we sliced sections of brain with something that resembled the knife my father used on home-cured ham. How surprisingly soft it was to cut.
Prior to starting my Spring School creative writing week at Newcastle University in 2014, I had read Pieces of Light: The New Science of Memory by Charles Fernyhough. It has been an invaluable source of information on the latest scientific research on memory, particularly autobiographical memory, but it has also been hugely inspirational as a piece of science writing (or creative non-fiction). Two things particularly stood out to me when reading the book and in researching this subject. Firstly, the notion that memory is random and secondly, that it is ultimately self-serving. As Charles Fernyhough states and the American writer and physicist Austin O’Malley wrote:
“Memory is a crazy woman that hoards coloured rags and throws away food.”
The randomness of memory is something that has often struck me. Why do we remember odd, apparently insignificant facts and not the things that would seem more important when looking back on our lives? Why can I recall the sandwich filling (garlic sausage) my brother threw out of the window that blocked the guttering, aged thirteen, but cannot remember the name of the actor who lodged with us? How can I remember the cigarette brand and packaging my grandmother smoked (Benson and Hedges, Silver) and a conversation we had about a TV programme aged fourteen but cannot remember any of the details of her funeral?
Yet it is the small details, those seemingly random colourful rags that stick and then float to the surface when we recall the past, especially it seems when writing about it. It is particularly that rich period for memory from our teens to our twenties, the reminiscence bump that Charles Fernyhough writes about in Pieces of Light, that keeps emerging in my writing, whether I want it to or not.
“A British study showed that when autobiographical memories were cued verbally, there was a predictable peak between the ages of eleven and twenty-five: the well replicated phenomenon known as the reminiscence bump.”
The majority of the poems I wrote in 2014 for the Spring School fell into this verbally cued reminiscence bump. On the first day of our course, the poet Bill Herbert asked us to think about “where am I from?”, followed by “where do I identify as home?” This led to an exploration of self and belonging that I initially found hard to write about. I was born in Bristol, we moved to the Midlands when I was seven and there I stayed until I left for Nottingham University.
I disliked living in land-locked Warwickshire and didn’t manage to change this land-bound situation when I moved to Nottingham for university, but at least I had moved north. I have always been moving north, by increments, as well as edging closer to the sea. I had wanted to go to medical school in Newcastle but didn’t get an interview. I wonder whether it is really a coincidence of fate that led me to the North East (Durham initially and then Newcastle) or something that needed to happen; a kind of embodied genetic pull to this landscape next to the sea. Tynemouth is where I live now, positioned on the mouth of the Tyne and next to the North Sea with its wild surf and beaches, stretching up the Northumberland coast to Scotland like a golden thread. This is the place I am now most likely to call home.
What emerged from Bill Herbert’s class was a need to write about my birth, my mother and our at times difficult relationship. It was a theme that was to flow through all my submitted poems, along with water as the element that I most identify with. Bill also encouraged us to think of body as place, by reading an extract from Paterson by William Carlos Williams, a theme that resonated with me and the obsession I have with writing about the human body and my memories of anatomy and dissection from medical school.
It is now clear to me (after six years of pursuing a writing life alongside medicine) that when I write I don’t always decide in advance on form, I just like to write. It is later that I make a decision as to whether I am writing poetry, prose or script, when looking back over the words. Fiona Evans took our scriptwriting class mid-week and I was encouraged when she advised us not to be tied to form or structure. Her session also introduced me to Marina Carr as a playwright, specifically her play By The Bog Of Cats. As we read sections of this script it felt to me to be very poetic and suddenly the idea of scriptwriting seemed less daunting.
Learning about performance and the concept of the clown with ‘Miscreations Theatre’, and the history behind the art form with Helen Limon as facilitator, also influenced my poems, particularly the idea of embracing the ridiculous. The importance of being able to laugh at yourself I hope comes through in my writing. Black humour, said to be a medical trait but more often than not a coping strategy for the difficulties encounters of healthcare work, is something I often explore when writing about medicine and health. Too easily my writing can stray towards the subject of death; my father jokes that it is my favourite topic. It is perhaps an occupational hazard but I hope to strike a balance between being respectful of serious subjects whilst seeking out the humour inherent in most human interactions.
In William Fiennes’s class we were asked to draw a map from memory. I ended up drawing a detailed plan of my childhood home where we lived from the age of seven to sixteen, and wrote about the memories attached to this house. Here it seemed was an endlessly rich seam of childhood and teenage memories in terms of a reminiscence bump that still feels very vivid to me. I liked the idea of writing about my territory being invaded and many stories bubbled up from this exercise. I hoped it would link several themes together by highlighting an aspect of my growing up and the emergence of identity. This aspect of identity as an internalised life-story is another recurring theme in my writing, one that is so clearly linked to reminiscence bumps and the reason psychologists believe this age looms so large in people’s memories.
I am aware that much of what I’ve learned in creative writing workshops is that these small details – proper nouns, the use of all five of the senses when we write – that help to bring our writing alive. This must be linked to the way we remember. When we write we are creating a world (the world) for the reader, just as we do for ourselves when we remember the past. Memories are not stored like files in a cabinet, they are created anew each time we recall the past. We narrate our lives as serves us best at the time of recollection.
Childhood memories particularly are often recalled through collaborative acts of remembering, like a collage. I know that in a number of the poems I have written some details I’ve had to ask my mother about, as I couldn’t recall something exactly, or the name of a place or person. My mother, father and brother have helped me fill in the gaps where needed, but it is also noticeable that they do not remember everything as I do. Charles Fernyhough writes:
“The idea that the past is a story that we tell ourselves, whose vividness can be no guarantee of its authenticity, highlights our reliance on language for social acts of remembering. If our autobiographical memory system serves to create a coherent narrative of our own past, it is a system that can frequently fool us into believing stories that are not true, as evidenced by the fact that many of us ‘remember’ events that we no longer believe actually happened.”
This was the concept that I was fascinated to read about in Judith Schalansky’s beautifully realised Atlas of Remote Islands: Fifty Islands I have not visited and never will. Christy Ducker recommended this book (it’s really very beautiful, brilliant and unique) and the preface particularly intrigued me:
“The absurdity of reality is lost on the large land masses, but here on the islands, it is writ large. An island offers a stage: everything that happens on it is practically forced to turn into a story, into a chamber piece in the middle of nowhere, into the stuff of literature. What is unique about these tales is that fact and fiction can no longer be separated: fact is fictionalised and fiction is turned into fact.”
I think everything I write tends to start out as an exploration of autobiographical memory that I then run with, to a greater or lesser degree. Christy Ducker invited us to think of a place that we were experts on, then asked us to put someone into that environment who had no knowledge of it. This was the inspiration for My Mother Visits the Dissection Room, a blend of factual information in terms of place (the dissection room I remember from medical school and that I have lately re-visited) and my knowledge of my maternal relationship that ended up as a poem about an imagined scenario that incorporated all of these elements.
My Mother Visits the Dissection Room
by Eliot North
She said she wanted to go there.
So I pulled some strings,
read her the rules.
“Sensible shoes?” she said.
“Yes Mother. Plus clothes
you don’t mind ruined.
Fixers, they don’t wash out.
The smell will get you,
but not of death. More chemicals
like wax and rubber.”
But my mother, being my mother
didn’t seem to mind.
Walked right up to the
stuck her hand inside.
“You won’t even know
I’m here,” she said.
Pulled on a dark-blue lab coat.
as I unzipped the body bag,
revealed cavities and cages.
Stood on tiptoes to peer inside,
scribbled in her notebook.
So I placed a stool
three feet away;
her territory and mine.
When the students filed in
they looked at her,
the older woman with colourful shoes.
Whilst I quizzed the students,
she daubed her paints.
At the end they crowded round her.
Admired her line and
brave use of colour
whilst I put the organs back.
As the students left
she called out to them.
“Call me Poppy!” she cried.
They waved from the door.
“Weren’t they interesting?
What a wonderful body,
all those nooks and crannies.”
I slung the heart in a plastic bag.
Looked at my watch
before herding her out.
Then as we went to the door
she turned round and said,
“Shall we say the same time next week?”
Published by Ink, Sweat and Tears on 30/08/2016 http://www.inksweatandtears.co.uk/pages/?p=11697
These two concepts, the unreliability of memory and the way in which we narrate our lives using a blend of fact and fiction to best suit ourselves at the time of telling, is endlessly fascinating to me. I’ve struggled at times to differentiate between what I think actually happened and what I have imagined when recalling the past. The poems I write are often a conscious blending of fact and fiction, something termed in memory research as imagination inflation (what a great term!) I don’t like to pin down my writing necessarily as creative non-fiction. I would prefer to think of my poems as fictionalised truths. In this my drive towards a cohesive narrative wins each time; I will bend the facts to meet the needs of the story I am writing. Who hasn’t done that after all?
This essay draws on the poetry, prose and script suggested by tutors Bill Herbert, Christy Ducker, Fiona Evans, Helen Limon and William Fiennes, as well as the following books, performances and readings:
Fernyhough, Charles, 2013, Pieces of Light: The New Science of Memory, London: Profile Books Ltd. (quoted passages p 3, p 20, p 54.)
Ishiguro, Kazuo, 1995, The Unconsoled, London: Faber and Faber Ltd.
Lively, Penelope, 2013, Ammonites and Leaping Fish: A Life in Time, London: Penguin Books Ltd. Extract read by the author at NCLA Reading: ‘Penelope Lively in conversation with William Fiennes,’ on 1/5/14.
Payne, Nick, 2014, Incognito, London: Faber and Faber Ltd. (Script) and Performance at Live Theatre, Newcastle, 30/4/1/4 followed by post-show discussion with the author, neuroscientists and clinicians working with memory disorders.
Schalansky, Judith, 2010, Atlas of Remote Islands: Fifty Islands I have not visited and never will, London: Penguin Books Ltd. (quoted passage pp. 19 – 20)
Henig, Robin Marantz, The Reminiscence Bump: People looking back on life remember their twenties best. Psychology Today, Posted October 24, 2012. Cited https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/cusp/201210/the-reminiscence-bump 2/8/16