“Your memory is a monster; you forget – it doesn’t.
It simply files things away. It keeps things for you,
or hides things from you – and summons them to your recall with a will of its own. You think you have a memory;
but it has you!”
John Irving writes that a fiction writer’s memory is an “especially imperfect provider of detail; we can always imagine a better detail than we can remember.” The most truthful detail, he contends, is what could have happened, what should have happened.
Irving traces the origin of his writing career to a time when he and his friends mercilessly taunted the mentally retarded man who collected garbage on Front Street in his stately New Hampshire neighborhood, much to the dismay of John’s gracious and genteel grandmother.
“Oink, oink,” they would call as Piggy Sneed tossed trash into the back of his rickety pickup truck, a vehicle whose only passengers were pigs. Rumor had it that Piggy slept with his pigs in their pen at night and that he never spoke; Piggy simply snorted and oinked.
One afternoon, the local volunteer fire department’s alarm sounded and a truck was dispatched to Piggy Sneed’s house. John, the youngest volunteer, was incredulous as he listened to the other men joke that Piggy would roast in the fire with his pigs because he was too simple minded to escape. Dangling from the side of the fire truck and feeling the heat of the flames on his face, John began to wonder who Piggy really was. And, he began to feel guilty about tormenting a man who had done nothing whatsoever to him.
Maybe he’s not really retarded, John reasoned. Maybe he’s saving money from the sale of his pigs to move to Florida, he suggested to the other firefighters. The men simply stared at him. Or, John speculated, Piggy is from Europe or some other foreign land and he doesn’t speak English. That’s why he doesn’t talk.
As the blaze engulfed Piggy’s pigpen, it was all too evident that Piggy could not possibly have survived, were he with his pigs that night as was his custom. Not until the men pulled Piggy’s burned and blackened body from the fire did John grasp at one last straw, and then relent. (Maybe he had family in Florida and was planning to join them).
For Irving, writing became an endless journey of Trying to Save Piggy Sneed, the title of his 1996 memoir. Irving’s stories and books are his attempts to rewrite history, to run back into that fire and pull Piggy out alive – or to prevent the fire from starting in the first place.
A lifelong love of writing has skewed my own view of life as it unfolds before me, and it has shaped and reshaped my sense of recall, that monster Irving calls memory.
As a child, I escaped fears and worries by writing stories of triumph and perseverance told by awkward, flawed characters who solved mysteries, fought crime and battled injustice, winning the love and acceptance of their families and friends. Slowly, what really happened took second chair to what should have, what could have happened. I lived in a world far shiner than the real one. I still do.
Still, it always frustrated me that my sister remembered people, places and events of our life as Air Force brats on the move in a way that differed, sometimes dramatically, from my version. More annoying still was that she remembered, with great detail, significant events and turning points in our lives that I don’t recall at all. It’s as if I was not there, as if I had taken leave, only to return later without bothering to ask and without being told what I had missed.
Looking back and looking inward, which is where I find myself today, I now understand that my lapses in memory, my gaps in my own history and my hazy recollections are an essential part of who I am and how I view the world. I hadn’t taken leave at all. I simply preferred my own version of what was happening around me to what actually was. Oftentimes I still do.
In the early 1990s, I read John Irving’s seventh novel, A Prayer for Owen Meany. I was mesmerized by the odd but inexplicably close friendship between two 11-year-old boys growing up in Gravesend, New Hampshire: John Wheelwright, for whom it seemed a lifetime would not be enough to find himself, despite the privileges and opportunities afforded him; and Owen Meany, who, despite mysterious medical conditions that stunted his growth and damaged his larynx, believed himself to be God’s instrument.
Because Owen had no idea how he would be used or when he would discover his purpose, he chose to construct his world as a practice field, regarding even the most insignificant occurrence as part of the training that would prepare him for the moment when his time arrived.
Owen lived in a world of his own creation, driven by a purpose so spectacular that everything else in life was intensified — more beautiful, more sorrowful and more urgent. Because of his size, his prominent, translucent ears and a voice squeezed and expressed through his nose in a shrill shout, a voice John describes as “wrecked,” Owen is picked on and ridiculed, teased and mocked by the other kids. But Owen soldiers on. He has work to do. God’s work.
While I ascribe to no religion, preferring a spiritual path I travel alone, as I approach 50 I am discovering that my purpose, my calling, is to be an instrument of change, of enlightenment, of understanding and harmony. Within and without.
Owen was a tiny, odd boy with a high-pitched nasal voice and radical, some would say delusional, belief about the world and his place in it. I am a flawed and fractured woman whose memory puzzle has many missing pieces, a seeming contradiction of an unrelenting optimist who has been an eye-witness to the darker correspondences of this world. I, like Owen Meany, will soldier on.
In the end, Owen fulfilled his purpose, was an instrument of God in such an unexpected, obtuse and beautiful way that it both broke the heart of his best friend John Wheelwright and stirred within it a faith in God, in life, in people and in himself, allowing John to, at last, lead a meaningful and peaceful life.
Like Owen Meany, I don’t need – or even want – to know the details of my destiny, the ultimate purpose of my being, to know how I will get there. As long as I, like Owen, regard everything and everyone in my life as a significant part of my sojourn toward fulfilling my purpose and realizing my dreams, I will have faith, I will believe. I’m practicing; I will be prepared when that moment arrives.
Meanwhile, I’ll forgive myself if I’m distracted from the minutiae of real life and lose track of what day it is, can’t recall what happened along the margins of last month or if my memory of events doesn’t match that of someone else’s. Chances are I was leaning over a desk, scrawling something across a piece of paper, rewriting and editing life as it unfolded.
It has been my experience that, as Irving said, the most truthful detail is what should have been, what could have been. Those are the very details that, when pieced together at exactly the right moment, will ensure that I fulfill my destiny and realize my dreams. Many who know me well say that I live in a fictitious world. I’m always quick to respond with a sincere “thank you,” and a sly smile.
How else will I save Piggy Sneed?
* With gratitude, love and respect to John Irving, John Wheelwright,
Owen Meany and that first pencil and paper.
~ C. Mist Harman