In my interview with diarist Kevin Bentley last week, Bentley and I discussed the form of the diary, and how it can help or hinder the type of autobiography an author is trying to tell. Bentley spoke about his decision to edit out many moments of high emotion, instead focusing on the descriptions of his sexual encounters – and the way that helped him create an entertaining and sharp narrative. Keep the Lights On director Ira Sachs also used his diaries to help write his film, but the resultant script lingers on some of his most painful moments. With this in mind, it’s interesting to consider the case of the six known people with what scientists call superior autobiographical memory.
In the first part of the report (above) from an episode of 60 Minutes last year, reporter Lesley Stahl interviews those who both suffer and benefit from this strange memory disorder, where the tiniest details of every experience, conversation (and the ensuing pain, pleasure, or ambiguity) can be re-experienced in real time. Being unable to edit out your painful moments could be useful to an actress like Marilu Henner, who may try to access moments of her life similar to what her characters are going through. But the piece points out, it can be a severe hindrance to others. The piece explores whether losing bits of our memory is in fact beneficial to us in an evolutionary sense – to keep us from being unable to function as the flood of memory hits each time someone mentions a potential trigger.
As writers and artists, we also try to access our own lives to create both our own autobiographical stories. Often we try to examine the memories that still remain, that we haven’t edited out of our own head because they’re too painful, and understand them better given the benefit of time and distance. To the many artists reading this post, I pose a question. Would you prefer to be able to access all your memories to use in creating work? Or is the art in trying to understand what remains, and why? Leave a comment below and tell us what you think.