May 28, 2012

The Industry of Memory


“We are in the industry of memory.” 

Someone said this on C-SPAN’s Book TV years ago, but I can’t remember who it was. It’s always stuck with me, though. 

By that, this person meant all writers.  All writers are in the industry of memory.  I love that.  We are the keepers of the past, the treasurers of the mind.  We hoard experience and try to transmute it into the gold of story in the forge of our brains.

It’s not only a right but also an awesome responsibility.  For a journalist, that means they should stick close to the facts. For a nonfiction writer, the same. But for a fiction writer?  It seems to me we have a number of responsibilities.  We have responsibilities to our readers ~ to entertain, to open their eyes to new experiences, to make them think and to feel.  We have responsibilities to our constituencies, the people we are representing to do them justice, to be truthful and not reductive.  We have responsibilities to ourselves, to use our gift to the best of our abilities, to be brave and to go there.  Most of this applies to nonfiction as well.

But since what we do is so powerful ~ we writers literally create memory and transmit it to future readers ~ do we have a moral obligation as well? My first impulse is to say, yes, of course we do.  We’re part of the human race, and we have obligations as part of it.

Do no harm, perhaps?  Do not write with revenge as the motive?  But that, to me, seems to go too far.  Humor writers often rely on stereotypes.  People write from anger all the time. You are creating representation when you write, and inevitably things will be left out, which can be harmful. And if we want to change things, you want people to feel it, to feel the emotional harm.  I read Ralph Ellison’s short story "Battle Royal" last night, and I burned with righteous anger for the main character.

But maybe this isn’t the post to go on at length about the moral obligations of writers.

What I wanted to say is that we as writers in general do have the moral obligation, the sacred trust, of bearing witness and remembering.  And as this is Memorial Day and we the general public are unaffected and divorced from all that’s happening to the men and women in our armed forces ~ some would argue, by design ~ perhaps this is a trust that we are failing. 

For nonfiction and fiction writers alike, if it is our job to remember, to list the body count on all sides, to recount the emotional toll, to expose those responsible at all levels, are we failing at this?


Ken said...

Thoughtful and thought provoking, Tamara. Less than one percent of our population now serves in the Armed Forces. So it easy for us to miss the considerable commitment not just of the men and women who sign up for military service, but also the families who support them and live with the anticipatory grief that combat deployments bring to their daily lives.

These families will continue to face incredible challenges rebuilding their lives even after the troops come home. Who will remember them?

Tamara said...

Thank you, Ken!

There's such a separation and such a toll taken on families. They and the soldiers of course are bearing a disproportionate burden.

You're doing such a great job, Ken, on this! You are a standard bearer!

~ Tamara

Ken said...

You are too kind. The families are the standard bearers.

I do worry that the fleeting resources for families will soon vanish, given that wars are winding down and we've never been very aware of their sacrifice. It's a politically easy budget cut.