The Memory Salvage of History
A discussion about memory and the past and how they play a big part of the projects I take on.
In this episode let’s talk about memory.
Did you ever consider what you’d be if you didn’t have any memories? Would you be the same person? Would you have the same values? Would you be without any sense of conscience or morals to know what’s right or wrong?
Think about it.
Memories are the core of your essence. Your experiences and what you remember of them are the human operating system that guides your every decision in life. It’s the algorithm of memory that expands and reconfigures with each new day of existence.
It could be said that memories are what defines the soul of a person. They give us the ongoing narrative that helps us through our lives.
But the thing about memories is that while they feel true, they aren’t an exact recording device of the past.
In fact, memories can be outright fabrications, created by our minds to justify an action, or to assuage some emotional pain.
Neurologist Oliver Sacksknew this and spent much of his career delving into the mysteries of the human mind. He studied how memories are conscious or unconsciously created and blurred between experience and fiction in the context of viewing the past.
Over the course of the past two years I realized this fascination with memory and history has also been a theme in my own life.
It was partly inspired by my father’s own experiences delving into Genealogy.
Back in the early 1990s he created histories of the four different family lineages that made up our ancestors.
At the time this wasn’t easily achieved since the internet was barely in its infancy. Dad had to travel quite a bit to visit state and local historical societies and search their records; he traveled to Washington DC to look at government census and immigration records, plus he even made a trip out to Salt Lake City where the Mormon Church kept records on just about every American.
There’s a whole reason and history behind the Mormon collection of family records for which this podcast doesn’t have the time to get into. But let’s just say that the LDS wants to make sure that none of their members are left out of their heaven when the Apocalypse comes.
I’m fascinated by the detective work required to discover the lost strands of the truth
Anyhow, I inherited my Dad’s interest in history and this was amplified by my college education. I got into courses on medieval art and church aesthetics. This later grew into an interest in ancient cultures and other religions. After college I got into videography and that developed into getting schooling on documentary film making.
It was in that training that I learned one of the main tenets of documentary film-making: Memories aren’t reliable evidence.
This fact intrigued me to pursue documenting the past. I’m fascinated by the detective work required to discover the lost strands of the truth that lie within those cloudy memories of the past.
Most of the time these investigations always start with an audio interview, or recording that I’ve discovered.
For example I was hired by Tryon Creek State Park, in Portland, Oregon to document the creation of the park. The history was known but was quickly fading from time since many of the founders were getting very elderly or passing on. This is when I was brought in to interview one of those founders, Lucile S. Beck.
After I gather any audio history, next comes the search for corroborating evidence to validate it. These searches include going to Historical societies and libraries for related old newspaper articles, archived photos, and any other related stray data. When properly stitched together in the proper historical context, they clarify a forgotten narrative, or reveal a universal truth.
Whether it’s a personal documentary or an organizational history, the search and discovery involved on these projects is half the thrill.
Fast forward to now, while the past couple of years of the pandemic may have stymied my film making pursuits, I’ve channeled that historical sleuthing of memory into the comics I post on substack.com
I used to be more into creating cartoons that satirize current events and politics, but I’ll admit after what we’ve all been going thru over the last two years, I started to feel like it was a form of depressive doom scrolling.
So instead, I decided to plum the sunny past for the fodder of my comics and thankfully I have a wealth of experiences to choose from.
I’ve traveled the world, met a fair share of celebrities and oddballs, done ridiculously dangerous stunts, and experienced tragedies that most can relate to.
So here I am madly illustrating 50+ years of wild, hilarious misadventures while also keeping an eye out for new ones.
The current project I’ve been creating is a compendium of stories from my days in a struggling local rock band in upstate New York in the early 1980s.
The band, which we named Hammer, was only around for a couple of years but during that short life span we managed to survive a slew of ludicrous events: insane bar owners, near-misses with the law, and our own poorly planned antics.
We were a band at a time when Elmira was in flux between great local music acts, and the start of a recession which would shutter many of the venues that featured these acts.
Here’s a few of the lost performance spaces of Elmira.
Going back to tell these stories now is definitely a memory challenge since there is very little left of the Elmira I and my band mates once knew. Urban renewal projects and redevelopment has really transformed the area to be almost unrecognizable. The bars and practice spaces we played in are either gutted ruins, bricked up shells, or have been completely removed from existence.
While I’ve searched for any relics of proof that these places existed, it may prove fruitless.
Heck, all I have left of that time is one lone cassette tape that was recorded at an outdoor graduation party in 1981.
At least I and the band mates that I have been in touch with have our collective memories from which to cull stories and that’ll have to suffice, even if it does tread into the arena of “imaginative reconstruction.”
But thankfully when it comes to comedy, the truth is just an additive to the memory oil which greases the engine of narrative.
If you want to start reading these Hammer Stories go here. You can subscribe to get them in your email box as well as look over the other comics I’ve created which are spun from the flotsam of the past.
Also over the next few months, on the podcast I’m hopefully going to get interviews with the other fellows in the band and you’ll be able to hear their side of the comics I’ve created, as well as what they went on to doing in life and what other adventures they’ve had.
This has been Escape from clowntown. I hope you’ve enjoyed the show, and thanks for listening.
A few other examples of memory based documentaries requiring corroborating evidence.
Neurologist Oliver Sacks on Memory, Plagiarism, and the Necessary Forgettings of Creativity https://www.themarginalian.org/2013/02/04/oliver-sacks-on-memory-and-plagiarism/
If you enjoyed the podcast please feel free to share it or leave a comment.