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Using Forgetfulness in Your Writing

I read an article by Lewis Hyde excerpted from his book A Primer for Forgetting: Getting Past the Past. In the excerpt, he describes a phenomenon that I didn’t think I had ever observed in myself concerning memory.

He describes a time in the 1920s when Dr. Kurt Lewin noticed that waiters were very good at remembering the particulars of a restaurant bill, but once the bill was paid they forgot the orders. He wondered if we forget a finished task more easily than an unfinished one.
His colleague, Bluma Zeigarnik, studied the premise and found that it was true. Now called the Zeigarnik effect, she concluded that “Unfinished tasks are remembered approximately twice as well as completed ones.”

Why does this happen? Zeigarnik believed that we have a need for completion, a desire for resolution, and so the memory endures. Once completed, it is more easily forgotten.

Dickens’ Dream by Robert William Buss, 1875 (Public Domain via Wikemedia)

I thought about this in connection with my writing – particularly my poetry. Do I forget my poems when they are finished but remember my unfinished ones?

Hyde uses a literary anecdote example with a story that I have read before about a time when Ernest Hemingway’s wife lost a suitcase containing the only copies of many of his stories. He was unable to re-create them. He commented on this in a later story, “The Strange Country.”

“Some of the stories had been about boxing, and some about baseball and others about horse racing. They were the things I had known best and had been closest to and several were about the first war. Writing them I had felt all the emotion I had to feel about those things and I had put it all in and all the knowledge of them that I could express and I had rewritten and rewritten until it was all in them and all gone out of me. Because I had worked on newspapers since I was very young I could never remember anything once I had written it down; as each day you wiped your memory clear with writing as you might wipe a blackboard clear with a sponge or a wet rag.”

Hyde also says that more modern studies of the Zeigarnik effect have not shown the effect to be conclusively true. Hyde feels the studies have been “poorly designed” and so the results have been mixed. He would like to see studies based on “memories of emotional states.”

He believes that desire seeks completion. Unrequited desire is hard to forget.

My poetry, though often connected to emotions, does not seem to be the best example. I remember my finished poems much better than the unfinished ones (and there are many unfinished ones). I don’t have a strong need to finish most of them. I abandon many.

I was involved in a poetry experiment in a workshop that dealt with this theory of memory. The poet leader had asked us to write a first draft on a prompt for homework. He wanted one attempt, on paper (not computer) and then stop and bring it to class the next day.

In class, he collected them immediately – and then dropped them into a garbage can. The class was shocked. He said ” Now, write that poem again. Whatever you recall matters. the rest will fall away.”  Some of us remembered much of the draft; some remembered almost nothing. I recalled the opening and a few phrases and the general idea I wanted to convey. I think I did remember the best of the poem. At the end of the workshop, you could take your draft from the trash. It was interesting to see what had fallen away.

I first read Lewis Hyde with his book The Gift: Imagination and the Erotic Life of Property  which a friend recommended as a good book about creativity. One premise of Hyde’s is that the marketplace is a terrible way to determine the worth of artists’ work. He calls the alternative economy “the gift” which allows creations and ideas to circulate freely, an idea which may make sense to you if you have ever given or received a work of art.

A Primer for Forgetting describes a version of forgetfulness through art and writing that offers forgetfulness as something that might offer a creative force.

In another book, Trickster Makes This World, Lewis Hyde looks at human imagination as it is portrayed in trickster mythology which goes back to Hermes in Greece, Krishna in India, and Coyote in North America, and then comes into the modern works of Picasso, Duchamp, Allen Ginsberg, John Cage, and Frederick Douglass.


This post first appeared on the One-Page Schoolhouse site 

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