Broken Bones and Old Songs: A Novelist’s Fight to Keep Memory Alive


Memory, at any age, is the essential ingredient in a novelist’s toolbox and particularly as a novelist grows older, he or she begins to pay especially close attention to the mysterious force, which is memory.

Without pure and accurate memory, there can be no recall of experience in its totality, no reclaiming of the senses, of the sensations of touch, smell, sight, or hearing, no pure recollection of past observations, thoughts, conversations, images, voices, names, faces, no way to reconstruct or reimagine events.

Memory is the machine of creativity—its heart and soul.

Fighting the long goodbye of the aging mind, the aging novelist battles nature. There will come a moment when creeping decrepitude begins to assert itself and the novelist must put down their pen. I feel certain that similar encroachments affect all artists who have discovered the gift of the creative imagination. But I can only address what I know and that is my lifetime occupation of fiction writing.

I’m not certain that there is any logical protection for the aging mind. All around me, I observe friends and family, many younger, begin to show signs of deteriorating memory, to varying degrees. I find comfort in discovering people of my age who are still pursuing an active, creative life, with special attention to fiction writers, many of whom throw in the towel finally in their early eighties, acknowledging finally their confrontation with the finish line.

Because the so-called “end game” looms large in my psyche as I gird my creative loins to fight the last battle, I have devised an exercise that may or may not postpone the enemy’s advance. I call it a lifetime reenactment, something I do in the morning hours when my brain seems freshest after a night’s sleep and my mind has used its dream episodes to empty itself of fantasies and distortions.

Warren and Lenny as ChildrenIn my moments of deliberate recall, I try to go back to the very beginning of memory, from babyhood onward. I try to remember the configurations of those rooms where I have lived, old addresses, old telephone numbers, friends from babyhood through childhood, my mother and father’s voices and faces, my grandparents, names, voices, accents, languages, the names and images of all of my extended family, aunts, uncles, cousins, the names of children I have played with, my birthday parties, the smells and sounds of my earliest recollections, the faces and names of all of my teachers from kindergarten through college, the faces of fellow students, my earliest sexual fantasies, experiments, and adventures, the names, faces, and voices of romantic involvements from childhood through puberty and beyond.

The details I search for in these memories cover every aspect of the past, every moment I force myself to relive, through illnesses, broken bones, old songs, the comfortable and the uncomfortable, insults endured, compliments offered, the good and the bad, enemies made, confrontations, physical and verbal, punishments, rejections, frustrations, failures, old bosses, fellow workers, army buddies, every facet of my military life and the names of fellow soldiers, my days serving in the Pentagon, every facet of my married life from the very moment I found my lifetime mate, the births of my children, the fears for them as children, their school days, the growing up phases of their lives.

I dig as deep as I can, patiently, investigating every nook and cranny of my conscious life. Nothing is off the table as I relentlessly search for the emotion of those moments. I spend these deliberate hours literally battling for recall. Sometimes it takes days to discover an event, a moment, a name, a face or a sound. But once discovered, it leads to more details, more explicit and accurate memories.

I have managed to remember as far back as my days in a carriage. Sights and smells come back to me: the touch of my mother’s hands, her voice, my father’s face, his voice, his hands, the shape and feel and every bit of my parents’ physical selves. I have recollected my third birthday party, aunts and uncles in attendance—the gift of a miniature grocery store stand, much like a miniature doll house, made of cardboard, that was subsequently trashed by my cousin and me.

My grandmother’s hands were swanlike in their grace, with long white tapered fingers; their touch was gentle and warm. My grandfather’s hands were strong and suggestive of early physical labor. My mother’s hands were more like his and my father’s, more like his mother’s.

PICT0122I force myself to remember my grandparents on both sides, what they looked like, how they lived, what food they prepared, their Yiddish chatter, the rituals that they lived by. I can taste my grandmother’s lokshen kugel and her gefilte fish. (Her Hamantashen had no peer.) I can remember the addresses of their homes and the sound of their voices.

I try to remember their funerals and how they looked in open coffins. The first dead person I ever saw was my father’s mother, who died at the age of fifty-six. She was made up to look lovely and almost alive.

I remember my grandparents’ home in Brooklyn, a tiny two-story house which became a place of refuge during the height of the Depression when my parents were dispossessed from their apartment. I try to remember the configuration of their living space, and I can map out in my mind the way their rooms were laid out and can place where each person slept. Eleven relatives were housed in that little three-bedroom house: my grandparents, the Goldmans, my parents, my Uncle Sunny and Aunt Ida, my cousin Joyce, her parents Chic and Rose, and my brother Cyrus, and myself. I can remember every single detail of that house and the look of all of my relatives, the cherry, plum, and pear trees and the grapes that crawled up the fence for homemade wine, all growing happily in the tiny yard. And in the one bathroom, the big bathtub with the clawed feet.

I try to recall the names of all my relatives, my aunts and uncles, my cousins, my friends from the very beginning of my life, their names and faces, their voices, their clothes, the games we played. I force myself to remember all my teachers from kindergarten onward and have come up with a roster of names from public school through college. I can name many of my earliest classmates. The crowd gets larger and larger as I progress. I can vividly remember all the actors and actresses and their names that appeared in the movies my mother and I went to every time they changed the schedules. In those days, movie houses were ubiquitous, and ours wasn’t more than a block or two from where we lived.

I have convinced myself that every second of every moment of my life lies preserved in the vault of memory. It’s there. I know it’s there. I believe it’s there. Gold nuggets of time strewn somewhere in the cells of my brain.

How far back have I gone? I hesitate to reveal it since it might be interpreted as a fiction writer’s fantasy. But I do remember moments in my baby carriage, the smell of it, the look of it, the surroundings. I have recollected my third birthday party, aunts and uncles in attendance—the gift of a miniature grocery store stand, much like a miniature doll house, made of cardboard, that was subsequently trashed by my cousin and me.

I liken this practice to an endless movie reel of my past unspooling in my mind. Whether it will extend the life of memory for me or anyone who happens to read this essay, I can’t say. But as a creative exercise, as a life exercise, entering the vault of experience reinvigorates me.

And yes, I am still an active writer of fiction in all of its manifestations and formulations. I will be eighty-nine in December.

Photographs provided courtesy of author.

Warren Adler is the acclaimed author of The War of the Roses, a masterpiece of macabre divorce adapted into the BAFTA and Golden Globe-nominated hit film starring Danny DeVito, Michael Douglas and Kathleen Turner. Adler has also optioned and sold film rights for a number of his works, including Random Hearts and Private Lies. Adler’s works have been translated into more than 25 languages, including his staged version of The War of the Roses, which has opened to spectacular reviews worldwide. Adler has taught creative writing seminars at New York University and has lectured on creative writing, film and television adaptation, and electronic publishing. He currently has a number of film/TV adaptations in various stages of development with Grey Eagle Films including The Children of the Roses. His novels are now available as audiobooks through Audible. More from this author →