The Jigsaw of Memory

A jigsaw puzzle is a) a metaphor, b) a way to take a break, c) an excuse to not-write, or d) all of the above.

When our kids were young, we used to play the game Memory with them, where you win by remembering where various words are placed in a face-down array of word-cards. A large jigsaw puzzle is, I think, the grown-up version of that game, especially since our house rules forbid the use of the box for reference.

I think a lot about memory, both as I age and in terms of how memories and the nature of memory itself affect my characters. I used to be graced with a very solid memory, not quite eidetic, but reasonably close. Now, as I approach 74, my memory is spotty, less facile, and often selective… though I suppose memory is always selective.

I feel memories as tangible things, though of course they’re not. They’ll vanish when I do, or perhaps before. The events themselves may have sent ripples forward in time, but just like waves in a pond, those ripples more remind us that something happened than prove dispositive as to exactly what.

In a novel, the author gets to control a character’s memories, to shape them to the purposes of plot and story. I find difficulty in asking a character to say, “I forget,” because memories are an easy way to introduce backstory, or the “before” to a tale, the “how-did-we-get-here.” Yet characters do forget, or misremember, or flat-out lie, to themselves and to others.

And are all the more interesting for doing so.

I’m musing on this today because I’m working on a tale where one of the characters has some memory loss (a former athlete, he chalks it up to CTE), and fears that a life without memories is not worth living. I find this character very difficult to write. He’s not me in any real way. Still, as authors we pour ourselves into our characters, wear their skin, see them from the inside, and then try to capture where we’ve just experienced.

And writing this character – Gunnar Fell – feels particularly scary.

Like I’m cutting myself into a jigsaw puzzle… and dropping pieces on the floor, where our dog will render them indecipherable.

(With the kids grown, we have converted one of the rear bedrooms into a jigsaw-puzzle room. The walls are lined with various New Yorker completed puzzles. On the table is a 1500-piece puzzle.)