How many of us rely on “forgotten memories”?
My question was prompted by Oliver Sacks’s article entitled “Speak, Memory” in the New York Review of Books. In it he recounts his discovery, some years after publishing his memoir, that one of his most vivid childhood memories was false. Not false, as in he made it up, but false as in it happened to someone else. His memory was based an extensive and moving description of the event in a letter from his brother. He “remembered” the details of the event, but he “forgot” the source of the information.
His article went on to explore the difference between plagiarism and cryptomnesia. Plagiarism implies intentionality, a conscious and willing misappropriation of someone else’s ideas or images. By contrast, cryptomnesia (“hidden memory”) describes ideas and images that emerge in consciousness without memory of their source.
Cryptomnesia, according to Sacks, can be a vital factor in creativity, insofar as it allows ideas and thoughts to be “reassembled, retranscribed, recategorized, given new and fresh implications.” But how often is that “new idea” simply a remembering of an idea whose context or source you no longer remember?
Sacks has put a name to a phenomenon that has bothered me in recent months. As I do my own blog and write guest posts on other blogs, I am constantly on the lookout for inspiration and use Google Alerts to find new sources on topics (memoir vs. fiction, letting go, mindfulness, risk-taking) that are of particular interest to me.
Often, my new blog builds on an idea I’ve used before. But often, it builds on someone else’s idea, much as today’s blog does. I make a concerted effort to give credit to the author of the idea, but I do wonder how often I use an “idea” without realizing that it really isn’t mine, that I have “forgotten” where the idea came from.
This is, I think, a distinction that writers of all stripes (not just memoirists) should be sensitive to. Aren’t we all “cryptomnesiacs”?!