I was just rereading my essay, “Identity and SF: Story as Science and Fiction,” to make sure it hadn’t got scrambled in translation to the web, when I realised that it was writing this essay that helped push me towards writing my memoir, And Now We Are Going to Have a Party. All that stuff about memory and freezing moments via diary entries or photographs…
After I wrote that essay, in 2005, I went to look at my photos and found an old diary I’d forgotten I’d had, and was absolutely wrenched into the past. And that past was different from the stories I’d told myself all my life. I started to want to understand the strange place between truth and memory, and the memories that had made me who I am. And so I started recalling specific incidents–such as the discovery of atoms–and rootling through my stuff to find corroborating evidence. Most of the time, there wasn’t any (most of the time there just isn’t; it doesn’t mean it didn’t happen, it just means I can’t be sure). Sometimes there was. Sometimes the evidence contradicted the memories. Sometimes (astonishingly often), I willfully misread the evidence the first time around, and only after repeated viewing could I see what was actually there.
Here’s a scan of a poem I wrote for a friend that might illustrate what I mean:
I don’t know when I wrote the poem. (1983? 1987? Probably closer to the latter: the dragon looks a bit like something I drew for Kelley in 1988, and even that was probably stolen from somewhere else–it doesn’t look like the kind of thing that comes from my own imagination–but after all this time I don’t remember where.) It was for a friend called Katherine who was probably in her fifties–only I didn’t know that at the time. I knew she was significantly older than me but had no clue that one could be over forty and still have a life (that’s yoof for you). It was her birthday. She told me it was her fortieth. Perhaps she was being ironic, but I didn’t know that (sigh) and took her seriously. I wrote this poem, and copied it out on nice paper and put it in an envelope covered in illustrations of dragons and dykes in shining armour (I forget if there was a princess; probably not). And then I gave the card to Katherine. And she was furious–absolutely shook with rage as she tore the envelope open: I was making her destroy beauty; I’d wasted all my talent on something disposable. I was puzzled and a bit hurt; to me it was a doodled poem, and a doodled picture, the kind of thing one jots on the phone pad while chatting–which only seemed to infuriate her further. Looking back, running the ‘memory’ through my mind over and over, I believe she was angry with herself for two reasons. One, she had lied to me about something she was ashamed to be ashamed about (second-wave feminists weren’t supposed to care about age and beauty, patriarchal concepts). Two, she was jealous of the fact that to me a poem and picture meant nothing, I could pump them out all day without thinking. She wanted to be a writer, but found writing difficult. And there I was wasting stuff! But I don’t know; that’s just what I imagine (and the kind of attitude I’d run into from my teachers all my life). I’d love to meet her again and have a beer and find out the truth of the matter.
But there’s no way to include something like that in a permanent medium like a book because it’s largely about someone else and it’s possible I could be imagining or at least wildly misinterpreting it all. For the memoir I generally opted to talk about the person I know best, me, and chose incidents and supporting artifacts very, very carefully.
Oh, and I’ve no idea where I got that doctors’ freebie note pad advertising Daonil. Just another mystery, another reason not to include it in the book.
Anyway, now that my early life (selections of it, anyway) is all organised and labelled and explained I feel very clear, very grounded, very certain. It’s a good feeling. And it all started with an essay… Life is strange.