One thing a lot of people know about Proust is that when he took a bite of madeleine it set off a cascade of memories which inspired his great seven-volume work. I believe there is a small madeleine industry in the place where it happened; I’m not sure whether they also supply the lime-flower tisane in which the madeleine was dunked. Presumably we are all hoping to duplicate the effect. The point isn’t, of course, that it has to be a madeleine, or even that such experiences are particularly unusual: nearly everyone has said things like “It brought it all back to me” or “I hadn’t remembered that for years”. It’s that Proust not only drew on the workings of involuntary memory, as writers often do; he valued it as an essential component of imagination. Alongside everything else that it does, A la Recherche du Temps Perdu celebrates the fact that we can remember – not merely remember, but recall in the most exquisite detail.
When I was fifteen, going on sixteen, getting ready to embark on my O-levels – as they were in those days – something happened to me that at the time I couldn’t explain. The constant flow of involuntary memories, mainly visual but with their own subtle sensory flavour, that had accompanied everything I thought and did, dried up, denuding words of the meaning behind the meaning. When I read a book, instead of a stream of images arising from the words I faced merely the words themselves, their black forms on the white or off-white page. At first I thought this was simply a part of growing up. Our English teacher at school was always telling us how people lost their imagination as they became adults. Unless they were poets, that is, and had that special sensitivity that we – who by definition weren’t poets – didn’t. As time went on, however, I gradually lost the sense of what the words were referring to, so that becoming involved in what I read was more or less impossible and getting through a book was like climbing a mountain, laden with a huge pack, and not even knowing when I’d got to the top. My state was one of universal boredom, corroding self-disgust and an inner emptiness that was as real as a physical pain. By then, of course, I had begun to realise there was something seriously wrong. It was diagnosed as depression; the tablets I was given sent me to sleep and intensified my disconnection from life. I had always wanted to write and in the midst of this I still tried, but I gave up in the face of the overwhelming void.
Things didn’t continue like that. I read English at university, still dogged by a sense of inner impairment but slowly becoming a person again, and once more tried to write. When I came to read Proust, in my mid-twenties, I was reassured to find him describing the blankness and futility of his early attempts. Perhaps I too would one day find the lost treasure of memory and imagination and my writing would then flow easily, instead of being ground out phrase by laborious phrase in a battle against the nothingness. But I wrote: first a tedious philosophical/psychological autobiography (I was in therapy at the time), a few pages of which have real clarity and immediacy, a long and dreadfully naive fairy tale, again autobiographical, which has some quite passable writing, then a few short stories and tentative poems. After that I embarked on the first draft of a novel which, though unpublishable as it stands, has passages in it that I wouldn’t be too ashamed of now. I tried to get the stories and the novel published but soon gave up when the rejection slips came in. That must prove it, I thought: I hadn’t got what it took to be a writer because of all that seemed to be missing inside me. Like a good many people, I suspect, I had a secret belief that I would produce some stunningly great work, while at the same time thinking my writing was useless and expecting people to tell me so.
My search for what I had lost led me into meditation and various forms of ‘personal growth’, letting me discover more about myself and what had made me that way I was. Here people wrote in the service of therapy: what mattered was not the writing itself but the sincerity of the expression. Yet, therapy or not, I still cared about writing . When someone said to me, “Never mind about your book, what about you?” I wanted to say, “But the book is me. Writing is who I am.” In time the search led me to experiment with ways of writing more freely, from scrawling swear words all over the page and daring not to use proper sentences, to exercises like Julia Cameron’s morning pages and Natalie Goldberg’s Zen-influenced writing practice. It was liberating to think that it didn’t matter what or how you wrote, so long as you wrote. But when doing the exercises I once more came up against the familiar barrier: how could I write ‘I remember’ when all there seemed to be was a blank? I hadn’t forgotten the past – or no more than anyone else forgets it – but that wasn’t the same as being able to recall it in the kind of sensuous detail I had once known. Never mind, Natalie Goldberg would say, if you can’t remember then write about not being able to remember. And with effort my recall did work: it was just that often it needed digging for, and sometimes I gave up in the attempt.
Why then, you may ask, have I carried on writing when there has apparently been so much stacked against it? Surely what I have seemed to be lacking is a sine qua non for good writing. But our abilities can triumph over our disabilities. There are musicians who are profoundly deaf and painters who have very little sight. I’ve never lost my love of words or the need to shape experience with them. Nor has my imagination been lacking in other ways: I’ve always been able to make up stories, create characters, even invent creatures and landscapes. Over the years there have been periods when I have written quite a lot and other periods when I’ve written little or nothing, either not believing I could do it or else just feeling it was too hard. But the reasons and excuses I’ve had for not writing are very little different from those that other writers have. It is hard, some of the time, and most writers, like most people, have areas within themselves that they find difficult to access. It just happens that this particular difficulty has been mine. And of course encouragement makes a huge difference to any writer’s confidence and output. Finishing the MA at Bath Spa, discovering how much I can do, has given me the impetus to keep on writing and take it as far as I can. Description that is intensely visual has always appealed to me; practising it has extended my descriptive abilities and brought me closer to that visual immediacy within myself.
Recently I’ve been getting more flashes of spontaneous memory: images, smells, tastes. Only flashes – nothing like the full-blown madeleine effect. It’s as though I’m meeting someone again who has been away, or at least kept a distance, for a very long time. Supposing it does all come back, I sometimes think, how much better I’ll be able to write. I’m not sure whether that’s true. I might be able to write more easily, more fluently, but would it really be that different? Pieces I wrote years ago, when I was still looking for myself, are similar in voice and sensibility (as the critics say) to what I write now – sometimes startlingly so. These days I have more confidence, more ability to edit and polish, a wider repertoire, but still the way I write is the way I write, with its own qualities and limitations. As a writer I’m continuing to learn and grow, with or without the madeleine experience. The thing to do, as I said in my blog story, is just to keep on writing.