SOLOMON SHERESHEVSK could not forget anything. What many think of as a blessing, he often saw as a curse. He learned the hard way that having total recall is not all it’s cracked up to be. Don’t get me wrong – knowing too little is not a good thing. However, like poor Solomon, we can become so enmeshed in an indistinguishable mass of irrelevant details that we miss the story for all the words.
Forgetting, it turns out, has enormous value for concise understanding. The best authors and filmmakers understand this. Think about the movie, The Sixth Sense. You know, the breakout film from M. Night Shyamalan where everyone one makes a liar out of themselves by claiming they figured out the twist from the beginning. In case you haven’t heard, the color red is an embedded clue that Shyamalan used to offer a cookie trail to the surprise ending. The few who were able to filter out everything else got it. Most didn’t.
But the weight of all the memories, piled up and overlapping in his brain, created crippling confusion. S could not fathom the meaning of a story, because the words got in the way. ‘No,’ [S] would say. ‘This is too much. Each word calls up images; they collide with one another, and the result is chaos. I can’t make anything out of this.”
After hearing them just once, Solomon Shereshevsky could recite entire speeches word for word. He could memorize complex math formulas, tables of 50 numbers and more, jumbled lines of nonsense syllables, and passages in foreign languages he did not know. This tangle of information was so durably etched in his brain that he could reproduce them years later,
This is too much. Each word calls up images; they collide with one another, and the result is chaos. I can’t make anything out of this. – Solomon Shereshevsk
The problem with our memories is not that nothing comes to mind—but that irrelevant stuff comes to mind. The act of forgetting crafts and hones data in the brain as if carving a statue from a block of marble. It enables us to make sense of the world by clearing a path to the thoughts that are truly valuable. – J Levy, Stanford University
Good fiction involves making what matters known and what doesn’t serve as window dressing. If the weather contributes to the story, then use it. It’s okay Snoopy, you can go ahead and start with, “It was a dark and stormy night.” Just don’t let constant referrals to the size and wetness of the raindrops drown out the story.
As I write this, I am sitting outside and taking in the beauty of my wife’s gardening handiwork. Between writing, a cacophony of bird sounds, and the world waking up to head off to work, I missed something. A friend sat on a birdfeeder, staring at me as he munched on a peanut. Our sometimes visiting, white squirrel had returned. Albino squirrels are quite rare as hawks and such find them easy targets. But there he was – “look at me, I’m the story. Don’t miss me in the jumble of all that’s going on around you.”
Solomon Shereshevsk’s life did not end with much fanfare. Driven to distraction by all he could not forget he tried his hand at exhibitions of his memory but wound up a taxi driver in Moscow. He desperately wanted to forget. In one futile attempt, he wrote down those things he wanted to be purged from his mind and burned the paper. In spite of his efforts he still could not decipher the story from the glut of meaningless data that flooded his brain.
Clarity of thought and words is what I am looking for. You won’t get that from the talking heads on Sunday morning or the color commentators during the Superbowl. Now we have three, four, and five of them competing with each other to fill our heads with a jumbled mess of good and meaningless information. More than the normal person can possibly hope to sort through. As a result, we miss the story amidst images of first responders at a mass shooting in Orlando or “the catch” and the end of game.
The story of Solomon Shereshevsk came to mind while writing my novella, Only Time. Here are the words his life inspired:
I don’t have the Russian’s uncanny memory, except when it comes to Barb. I look at her picture and I hear her labored breathing. I taste the moist copper of her blood splattered across my face. I smell the faint traces of scorched flesh beside me. I am glad now that I cannot see her in this moment. Her promising to never leave me even as I hear her life ebb away. Unable to touch or see her. At least fate spared one of my senses the desolation of loss. I close my eyes and drink her in, sitting at her writing place, dreaming up worlds only she can see. I surrender to my fatigued mind hoping to awake in a better place, disappointed that I am still here.
Though often attributed to Ernest Hemingway, the origin of what is still considered the most powerful story every told with six words is lost to urban legend. However, whoever wrote that brief sentence, the power of the story is undeniable …