Tuesday, November 29, 2005

childhood memories

Early in November I read this great question on Raising WEG: "So here's the philosophical question: what is our childhood?� If you're prepared to accept, as I am, that memory plays a role in shaping our selves, that childhood is valuable not just for the subconcious effects it has on our inborn temperments but also for its storehouse of tales re-told in adulthood, what difference does it make that we forget most of our childhoods?� How much does it matter for us as parents, parents trying to create 'good childhoods' for our children, trying to lay down strong foundations, when what we remember of our childhood often diverges pretty radically from what our own parents remember.�"

At the time, I thought I had something profound to say about it, but no time to do so. Now that I have the time, I'm suddenly struck by how little I have to say about the question, after all.

But I'm not going to let that stop me. I want to talk about stories and memories, whether we remember them or not.

I've just ordered the books for my children's literature course next spring, and I am struck by how many of them are about storytelling. I don't think this is just selection bias on my account. Yes, I'm an English professor who specializes in fiction, in narrative, in storytelling, so I am drawn to those stories. But I think writers for kids are, too. So in Alice in Wonderland, Alice repeatedly tries to remember stories, tells some, fails to tell others, and thinks about what she will remember of her adventures when she is no longer having them. In Coraline, the title character recognizes the way her story is a story, is like other stories she's read. In The Neverending Story, Bastien learns that by telling a story he can create reality. Peter Pan brings Wendy to Neverland in order to hear stories, including the end of Cinderella. In Walter Dean Myers' Monster, the title character makes a movie of his experiences, controlling and shaping them with the camera and the storyboard. And so on.

What does this have to do with Jody's question? Much of what we remember in adulthood is story. In fact, we actually move experience from short to long term memory by telling it, turning it into narrative. (I have a friend who's a memory expert and confirms this for me.) So if your family tells stories about you, those silly/cute/annoying stories about what you did when you were too little to know better, for example, then those stories become your memories. The stories about stories seem to intuit this fact, and give us new ways to organize our memories, to think about our own lives in terms of other people's lives. I've never, for example, felt that I created a reality by imagining it, but Bastien's experience--which I first read about as a child or teenager myself--reminds me of the stories I did invent in childhood, and those I heard. While my memories of my childhood do, as Jody suggests, diverge pretty radically from my parents' memories, we come together on certain stories, both true and fictional, and those are a shared source of history and delight. Their stories of my childhood will necessarily differ from my own, but as we continue to tell them we create new memories, too.

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