Memory can be a slippery business.
It was a point driven home when I sat down to write my memoir of the years covering the Oregon Coast. Reading through my journals from those days, I was surprised to discover that at times the memory and the written record simply did not match. Likewise, my husband and I will find ourselves completely at odds over memories of past experiences.
Likely few appreciate memory like writer Floyd Skloot. For Skloot, whose brain was attacked by a virus in 1988, memory is a trickster of sorts, an elusive companion not to be trusted. And yet, his memoirs are some of his finest work. I caught up with Skloot by phone recently in advance of his visit to the upcoming Willamette Writers’ meeting in Newport. When he mentioned recently that he has been writing essays about memories, including shared memories, I asked, were there any surprises?
Skloot laughed. Sure, there’d been a few. In talking with fellow cast members from a play he’d acted in decades ago, he found their memories often differed. And there was the trip in 1963 to Atlantic City for the first Super Bowl, which was blacked out in his home town of Long Beach — an island just off Long Island. He recalled the four friends who accompanied him to the New Jersey hotel room where they watched on TV the showdown between the Green Bay Packers and New York Giants. He remembered stepping out into the bitter cold for some fresh air and hearing the cheers from the other rooms as the game played out on TV. He shared the memory with his wife Beverly Hallberg who suggested Skloot get in touch with his old boyhood friends to share their memories. And so he did. They were not the conversations he expected.
I first learned of Skloot’s work in 2003 when his memoir “In the Shadow of Memory” debuted. The story details his life after the virus, which not only devastated his memory, but cost him his ability to think abstractly and lowered his IQ by 20 points.
In it, he writes, “Memory loss moves through everything else like a ghost; nothing can stop it. It insinuates itself into life moment by moment, invisible to others except in how it makes its host respond. Having lost the integrity of my mental process, my past and often my present, I sometimes sense images floating away like ghosts too, the familiar transformed in a flash to the strange. I am haunted by what I have missed, though it happened to me.”
Before the virus, Skloot had written poetry and two and a half novels. But after the virus, he found he could no longer hear the voices of his fictional characters.
“What I could hear was my own voice,” he said. “I think it was telling me, You must write what is going on in your own life or this virus is going to silence you.”
And so he again set about writing, learning to cope with his deficits as he wrote.
“As a result of neurological damage, I can’t do structure,” he told me. “I can’t plan a book. “It’s taken me years to recognize how to proceed in developing essays. The books develop essay by essay without a theme in mind. Each essay is really put together from fragments, as well. Eventually it reads with greater cohesion than it sounds.
“I’m really good about taking notes and putting them in colored-coded files. It’s frustrating. Sometimes I’ll have an idea and I’ll lose it if I don’t get it down. I have pens and paper everywhere.”
Obviously, his process works. His awards include three Pushcart Prizes, a Pen USA Literary Award, two Pacific NW Awards and two Oregon Book Awards. He has been named by Poets & Writers “One of fifty of the most inspiring authors in the world.” (He is also the very proud dad of Rebecca Skloot, celebrated author of the New York Times bestseller “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks.”
On Sunday, March 19, at 2 pm at the Newport Public Library, Skloot will talk about how he built one of his prize-winning essays, “The Famous Recipe,” and also how that essay in turn became a key part of building his book “Revertigo: An Off-Kilter Memoir.”
I suspect he’ll also be happy to tell you, too, the rest of the story of that prized memory of his visit to Atlantic City.
Lori Tobias is the author of the novel “Wander” and a journalist of many years. Follow her at loritobias.com.