Where Is My Mind?

J.T. Ellison

Have I ever mentioned that I have a truly terrible memory? Well, if I have, forgive me. I’ve obviously forgotten. I kid you not, I am the epitome of the absentminded professor, especially when it comes to remembering books I’ve read and movies I’ve watched. I’ve always admired people who can trot out remembered first lines of books, who can remember everything they read. I mean, I can, sort of, but I generally need some sort of mental prompting to get there.

It’s never been a big deal. Almost a joke really, something hubby can trot out at parties to tease me with. Harmless. J.T. Ellison channels inner ditz, blind squirrel finds nut, news at 11.

But now I find that I can’t remember what I’ve written as well, which can be mighty embarassing. I was at dinner over the holidays with a friend who was reading the book. He told me he was right at the spot where Baldwin goes to Virginia. I stared at him blankly, thinking Huh? Virginia? There’s no murder in Virginia in the book. To prove that I’m a complete imbecile, I proceeded to tell him that. You must mean Georgia, or maybe North Carolina, I said. He looked at me like I’d grown three heads and said, no, pretty sure it’s Virginia. It took me a moment, then it connected. DUH! I set a huge murder scene in Roanoke.

In a flash, all the research I’d done, the scene, the plot, the point, the why all hit me. It wasn’t a minor point in the book, either — dump site, grassy field, helicopters, news vans, interviews, a hotel crime scene, another girl missing… Sheesh. Of course I had a murder in Virginia. Good grief, where is my mind? 

I laughed it off at the time, but this is a serious issue. It happened with the edits of my second book. I got my ed letter and there was a comment about a secondary character — and I thought, who’s that? Ten seconds later it connected again, just like the Virginia thing, but man. How can I not know my own work by heart?

I just know it’s going to happen out on the road, on a panel, at a signing, and I’ll end up looking like a complete fraud because I can’t remember all the details in MY OWN BOOK, the one I rewrote a thousand times. Either I’m going mad, or I have a legitimate memory issue.

The day after my dinner faux pas, I picked up a book I’d bought at the airport. I’ve been salivating over the trailers for ATONEMENT, and was determined to read the book before I saw the film. Christmas frivolity behind me, I curled up with a cup of tea, preparing myself for a journey of the highest order. I neglected to read the back cover . . . okay, I’ll admit it, I rarely read the cover flaps and copy, simply because I like to be surprised. I’ve bought the book, why chance ruining something for myself?

I was two pages in when I felt the oddest sense of familiarity. Predisposed to it, I told myself, having just finished THE NIGHT CLIMBERS, a story redolent of Donna Tartt’s brilliant THE SECRET HISTORY. I kept reading. Five pages in I decided I’ve had just about enough of writers openly copying the form and function of each other. I mean really, how many books can you open in a country estate with the children preparing a play? Seven pages in I stopped, annoyed as hell at myself. I had a sneaking suspicion that I’d read this book before. But how could that be? Surely I’d remember the title of such a book? Onward I pressed, promising myself that if there was a broken . . . damn, there it was.

Grr… Full stop. I checked the copyright, pulled up IMDB, read the movie synopsis, then sat, shaking my head. I’ve read ATONEMENT. I LOVED ATONEMENT. Somehow, I completely blanked the story of ATONEMENT, and I’m so clueless that I have been watching the trailers over and over and never put the two together.

I don’t know whether this is a blessing or a curse. Yes, I can reread books and rewatch movies. Get more bang for the buck, right? What I don’t understand is how some I remember with such clarity, and other I can’t get past the sneaking unease of déjà vu.

So as a test, I tried to remember what my first blog post of 2007 was. Surely I could remember my first foray into my debut year . . .  not. I had to go look it up. What I read was eerie. Downright creepy. I’m repeating my first week of January.

Last year I was upset by the death of Gerald Ford. This year I’m horrified at the assassination of Benazir Bhutto. Last year I was starting a new book. This year, you guessed it, I’m starting a new book. Last year I was examining the art of procrastination and concerned about having to work on multiple projects at once. This year I’m trying to wrap my head around the promotion schedule I’ve set for January (5 events, the teaching gig next week, plus launching the Killer Year anthology, a guest blog stint at Moments in Crime, an essay, an interview and hello, I still have to feed Randy and do laundry. What the heck was I thinking?)   and juggling the down time I need to get started on this book with the errant expectation of people who like to make sure I’m still alive that I ever want to leave my house.

Gaaaaaahhhhhhhh…………..Maybe I don’t have a memory issue. Maybe I’m just on sensory overload. Too much work, too little time. I was able to complete and shelve two MAJOR projects that ate into all my free time last year, and now I know what to expect from book launches and sales and all that, so I won’t be utterly preoccupied with that. And to my credit, I did read ATONEMENT when it originally published, while I was still down from back surgery and not all the synapses were firing due to a lengthy run of anesthesia. Not a great excuse, I know, but a legitimate one.

After living almost half my life with a man who has the gift of perfect recall, I have realized that trying to remember is simply the universe’s way of playing a cruel joke on me. I’m much better off in my little dissociative cocoon, happily rereading books I’ve looked forward to for months and forgetting the endings of movies I’ve seen four times. The real world is too scary for me. I will go on making my lists (if it doesn’t get written down, it doesn’t happen, trust me) and spluttering through my imperfect mind.

So, a poll to start the new year:

  • Insanity – blessing, or curse?
  • Have you ever read a book, gotten to the last page and then realized you’ve already read it?
  • Do ginko and crosswords really ward off dementia?
  • Should I read ON CHESIL BEACH, which I’ve heard described as a smaller version of ATONEMENT and I’m sure I haven’t already read?

Wine of the Week: Faustino V 1998 Rioja Reserve A brilliant, brilliant wine.

Okay, I’ve just proven to myself that memory is linked to desire. I came up with the name without having to look in my notes. I’ve been excited to share this one since we had it over Christmas, and I fell in love with the heady scent of snapping black cherries and vanilla — a very nice little wine. Hubby said that it was "impetuous, and if it were a baby, I’d spank it." He’s funny like that.

P.S. — With apologies to the amazing Ian McEwan. ATONEMENT was truly wonderful.

16 thoughts on “Where Is My Mind?

  1. B.G. Ritts

    Sounds like our minds are wired similarly, JT. And my particular manifestation is not being able to remember that specific word. Friends at my last job knew me so well after many years of discussions to just fill in my blanks to keep the conversation moving along. (Sometimes others got a surprised look on their faces though.)

    I’ve always been a Star Trek fan, but have never been able to remember chapter, verse, line, and letter the way ‘real’ trekkers do. If someone ‘catches’ you at a con panel or signing, you could use “Oh, that was in the alternate universe I was considering.”

    Pollwise: insanity is just a hair’s breadth away from brilliant creativity; I usually remember I’ve already read a book by about a quarter of the way in; supplements may not be as wonderful as the people selling them want us to think — and I don’t want my genetic makeup to be the one that has the fatal interaction (I know of someone to whom that happened) — crosswords are lots of fun, though.

  2. Tammy Cravit

    Boy, that sounds familiar, JT. I keep copious notes to help me stay oriented to the novel I’m working on, but I shudder to think what’s going to happen when I’m working on my second or third or tenth. I can’t quite yet conceive of myself on a panel or at a signing, so I haven’t invested a lot of energy worrying about that. If I did, I’m sure it would scare me witless.

    Pollwise: I think insanity and genius are two aspects of the same phenomenon. I don’t have a name for it, but it’s the wellspring from which creativity, and madness, seem to flow in like quantities. Don’t know about crosswords, though I’ll ask my father – he likes doing the cryptic crossword variety, which drive me batty in short order.

    And yes, I’ve read a number of books all the through before realizing I’ve read them already, though I do tend to have a vague sense of deja vu along the way. The last time this happened to me was with Lee Childs’ Persuader, which was too good a book by half to deserve my complete lack of memory of having read it the first time.

    B.G.: Fatal interaction? To what sort of supplement? Sounds like an interesting murder method to me.

  3. Catherine

    Running joke in my family, which sadly happens a lot… Have you taken your Gingko? um no I keep forgetting to.

    I think my memory tends to deal with what I absolutely need it to…in the moment.It’s like it fires up and can pull in all sorts of obscure associations pertinent at the time(obscure associations fool people into thinking I have a good memory ironically)…If someone talks about this conversation or topic, oh a while later , it’s like threading my way back down foggy path trying to get a fix on it.

    I think I’m more vague if I have ideas beyond the norm humming away in the background of my mind.

    I’ve read a lot, always have…and yet there are books I would swear I haven’t read and then I’m a couple of chapters through , or sometimes near the end, and I’ll remember reading it as a teenager and can even then remember where I was and who I discussed it with…

    I have to live by lists too. I actually have a really bright folder for vital stuff so I can find it more easily as well.I find some really basic caretaking helps, like drinking enough water and making sure I exercise.I’m only 42 so I don’t think age is a major factor yet…I think my fade in fade out memory is more a symptom of wiggly very few straight lines thinking.

    JT you’re not alone.

  4. Bryon Quertermous

    I’m SOOOOO in this club, but like you mentioned, I find it’s great for rereading books and such. Though I can’t say I ever read a book I thought was new and realized I’d already read it. Where I find this is a really helpful trait is in revisions. If you can’t even remember writing a scene it certainly helps give it a fresh take.

  5. pari noskin taichert

    Oh, that is soooooo funny, JT.

    Count me in as a card-carrying member, too.

    I even forget books that I’ve REREAD once or twice through — already. And my works are the same way; I remember most of the characters, um, sometimes, but, well, not really . . .

    So, does Ginko really work?

    And, this year, I’ve resorted to lists again. Otherwise I forget important things, too, like making hotel reservations. Oh, last year, I even forgot which hotel I’d made a reservation at and had to search and search all the scraps of paper in my office until I found a phone number from that area code.

    ARGGGGGGhHHHHH is right.

  6. Louise Ure

    My all time worst record was rebuying and rereading the same book three times.

    And a friend recently asked me to remind them of the name of the protagonist in my first book. Total blank.

  7. toni mcgee causey

    Who are you, again?

    Geez, we could be twins. And thank you, Louise, for telling about the three times. I have done that, too. Most annoying is to hear someone discussing a book that seems vaguely familiar and not be able to participate in the discussion, then go home and see it on my shelves and open it to finally remember the story. (Uh, sometimes, only after the first chapter.)

    At least I’m easily entertained.

    (hush, Rob)

  8. Jim Winter

    I’m not sure I’ve heard a single author on the Bat Segundo podcast who didn’t ask Ed Champion, “What do you mean? I don’t remember that,” only to have Ed read the passage in question aloud.

    Even now, I dread the day when, after ROAD RULES has found a home (How’s that for hubris?) and an editor comes back and says, “Miguel changes his shirt between scenes in Chapter 24.”

    Who’s Miguel? I thought his name was Enrique.

  9. JT Ellison

    I feel so much better!!!! I honestly thought I was the only one. Thank you, one and all, for joining me. The white jackets are quite comfortable after you get used to them.

    When I left this morning to run 1,000 errands, I turned on the radio and “Where Is My Mind” by the Pixies was playing. It’s like they knew…

    And when I got home, there was a package I’d ordered the day after the disaster at dinner. From Levenger, a starter pack Circa Notebook. I am going to build myself a bible for all of my characters, plots and settings so I have something handy. I think it will help refine the mess up there.

    Jim, I’ll warn you now. When you think it’s funny that you didn’t remember the character’s name and tell your editor, be prepared for that deep silence that speaks VOLUMES…

  10. Tasha Alexander

    Wait. You mean people are SUPPOSED to remember things?

    Insanity – blessing, or curse?


    Have you ever read a book, gotten to the last page and then realized you’ve already read it?

    I don’t know that I’ve had that happen, but I’ve certainly bought multiple copies of the same book, realizing neither that I already own it nor that I’ve already read it.

    Do ginko and crosswords really ward off dementia?

    Doubt it.

    Should I read ON CHESIL BEACH, which I’ve heard described as a smaller version of ATONEMENT and I’m sure I haven’t already read?

    Eh. Didn’t appeal to me. But everyone I know who read it loved it….

    You are SO going to love your Circa notebook!

  11. JT Ellison

    Ha – that coming from the girl with the perfect recall.

    The Circa package, btw — Levenger is running a special, buy the $40 starter pack, get a $40 gift card. What a bargain. And we all know how I feel about office supplies…

  12. a Paperback Writer

    I have quite a good memory, actually, but I still forgot my own name once.It was at my ex-husband’s sister’s wedding. As she had no sisters of her own, she had asked me to be the matron of honor. In the wedding line at the reception, I kept shaking hands with strangers and saying, “I’m X, Y’s sister-in-law.” Then one man through me off by asking which of Y’s brothers was my husband. After I pointed out my then-spouse, the man asked, “And what was your name?”I blanked. I knew I was either X or Y, but I honestly couldn’t remember WHICH one of the two was my name. (And I don’t even drink, so there was no intoxication involved here.) After a second or two of my stammering, my then-sister-in-law leaned over and said, “I’m Y; you’re X.” That solved it.I suppose I eventually would’ve remembered, but the strange man had a laugh at my expense.

  13. billie

    I’ve just laughed myself into tears – great story about forgetting your own name!

    I’m in the club too. It happens rather randomly to me, and I can’t imagine being on a panel and blanking on a book detail. That said I’m absolutely certain it will happen should I end up on a panel one day.

    I too am happy to hear I’m not the only one!

  14. Alexandra Sokoloff

    I have a very retentive memory (my college friends actually call me “the collective memory”. Which means I have a lot of power – they’re so used to asking me what happened that I could just make it all up by now.)

    But not for names. And that is KILLING me with this book promotion thing. I will forget a name between a reader saying it and my lowering my head to sign the book.

    It is miserably humiliating.

    PW – that is a fabulous story. Dying.


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