The Morphing Nature Of Memories

Being an excerpted project note for a book-in-progress

Confession: Prior to major writing projects, I’m a Deeply Serious Notetaker. For me, notes are what storyboards were to Hitchcock–so detailed that the only thing I need to do during their eventual realization is concentrate on the purely technical.

But this isn’t to say that all notes are equal–they’re not. And by this, I mean that some of them cut  to the very marrow of a project. Put another way, some notes accidentally become part of the genome map of the writing at hand–with emphasis on accidentally. Because those kinds of notes cannot be consciously written–or at least I can’t write them intentionally–in much the same way that most pop artists don’t simply sit down and say, “Right–time for the hit single.” Notes like these are genuinely mysterious because there’s almost a channelling aspect to them.

Which brings us to this morning, when I lost my way in a draft of the book–preplanning be damned, it happens. And in an attempt to find my footing again, I pulled down one of the Moleskines containing general notes for the project and found this–which immediately put me on the right course again. The thing is, I have almost no memory of writing this–I have the vague impression that is was in the middle of the night more than a year ago. And I’m also certain that I didn’t capture it in the the midst of an Ah-Ha Moment. I merely wrote it down because that’s what I do–I take notes.

But now, all this time later, it’s proven to be important enough to move onto its own well-deserved page in the Notes folder of Scrivener, my writing app. In terms of the book, it’s turned out to be a hit single: one which feels more attributable to my skills as possessed conduit than as a writer–almost creepily so, in fact.

But however this occurred, I’d like to thank my late-night, past-self for having the sense to get it down–and, of course, give props to whatever scotch and music played a part . . .


The best live versions of songs are the early ones–the ones closest to the writing and the recording. Five or ten or twenty years later, there may be “legendary” live performances–but these are honored as a specific sets of downstream moments and performance inflections, and not as the purest, most direct connections to original intents.

The marginalia of age versus direct emotional lineage: An artist’s expressive tools may be better honed later, but the original vision has blurred. So which version is better? Which is worse? And why? Unavoidably, it comes down to this–considered and retrofitted or raw and immediate?

Eventually, all singers become cover artists of their own material. And even though covers can be breathtaking and even breakthrough in their reimaginings, there’s one thing they can never be–original. At their best, they can only supplant because they can never replace.

We’re talking about authenticity here. In terms of pop singers–indeed, in terms of all of us–it’s a binary existence: There’s only the original and the remixes (which are sometimes endless). And the remixes are what we call autobiography–the morphing truth we tell ourselves in order to fall asleep, and then at three in the morning when awakened from that recurring bad dream, whatever it may be.

In the middle of the night, we’re all cover artists of our lives–second-guessing and revising the shoulda/coulda/woulda of our respective histories.

Here’s the thing, though: We’re hard-wired to favor the present, no matter what that might be. Thus Sting thinks the crappy orchestral version of “Roxanne” trumps previous versions and Lou Reed believes in the Take No Prisoners iteration of “Walk On The Wild Side”–the one punctuated by a stand-up routine . . .

The problem is that there are two kinds of authenticity–original and present. And psychologically, Present Authenticity always wins. Two decades later, a pop star prefers to be a commentator on the song written by his or her 19-year-old self rather than re-inhabiting the teen. Similarly, at three in the morning, each of us prefers to adjust that failed love affair from years ago to seamlessly make sense with our present circumstances instead of simply reliving it.