I have a lousy memory.
I’ve told stories from my childhood to friends, and had someone (my sister, perhaps, or my mother) say, “That’s not how it happened!” “Of course it is,” I counter, “I remember.” Evidence, then, is produced, which calls my account of events into question; a photograph or blurry home video. “But I remember!” I protest, to no avail. Maybe it’s something trivial—who was at which event, what came first, that sort of thing. Maybe it’s something more serious, like the climax of a family story. Either way, the fact is, my memory is less than trustworthy.
I wonder if that’s where my obsession with writing began: with getting things on paper, or at least on Microsoft Word’s pixilated digi-paper, where the thoughts and the words won’t change unexpectedly. I get them on paper and they’re locked down, caught like butterflies, kept like tropical fish, safe, so I know where they are when I need them.
Except they’re still not, are they? The words twist and writhe under my pen. I’ll read a story of mine that was long since edited, polished, workshopped, reviewed, and almost perfect—and then I’ll see the wrong word, the wrong phrase, see the plot holes and flat characters and plastic settings and throw the story across the room in disgust. The words changed. The story changed. The world changed, when I wasn’t looking.
I find myself envying the Tralfamadorian fatalism of one Billy Pilgrim, unstuck in time, experiencing past and present and future as one, unchangeable, immediate. Personally, my life is more akin to Messrs. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, unable to recall more than “a man standing on his saddle to bang on the shutters,” unable to be certain of my own name.
I start to write a story. When I reach the middle, it becomes a different story than I had originally envisioned. Sometimes I must go back and re-write the beginning from scratch, so that the middle and end will make sense. Even so with memory: altering, tailoring, nip-and-tucking the past, to fit with the life-storyline I think I’m currently in. I re-write and revise every time I remember.
Perhaps that’s what happened with the old stories. Perhaps, when your king died, it wasn’t enough that he died in glorious battle, outnumbered by warriors from a neighboring village. No, instead, let it be a dragon that he fought, a proper hord-weard wyrm. And if he died fighting a dragon, why, he needs a youth to match—a youth spent pulling the arms off monsters and swimming oceans in forty-odd pounds of armor. And so the story forms, working backward, crafting a climax to justify its dénouement.
Or perhaps in those days giants walked the land, and live dragons guarded golden hoards. Who can say for certain?
All I have is now.