If I could describe one of the characteristics of a writer, I would say it’s being able to place it.
It’s like when you’re trying to remember something, and you can’t quite put your finger on it. But if you’re a writer, that’s your job. You have to place it.
If you’ve known my family long enough, you know we have this habit of tracing our conversations back to the root. It’s as if we view conversations like a labyrinth, and you get out by keeping one hand on the wall and walking, and walking, and walking, until you’ve explored every pathway. And you keep retracing your steps, all the way through to the end. So if you talk to us, and we reach the end of one branch of the conversation, and we stall for a moment, you’ll hear us say something like “what were we talking about just now?” and then step back a few branches in the conversation. And then we’ll say “oh yes, that’s right, we were talking about this…” and we carry on from there, like we hadn’t just had a half-hour detour down a different path. And we can always find that place that we were talking about earlier, because it nags at us when we don’t. We remember it later, in the car while we’re driving home, and we wish we’d gone back to that one point, because it was such an interesting idea. We can’t let go. We have to place it. We have to remember.
I think people sometimes write like they’re Porky Pig, like they’re trying to find the right word but they can’t. And they stutter, and stutter, and stutter, until finally they give up, and they settle for a replacement word. But when you’re a writer, you can’t settle. You have to use the right word, you have to find the perfect metaphor for that thing you’re trying to say. Because second-best won’t do.
When you’re trying to remember what that song is, the habit you form is to never to say “whatever,” it’s to think until you place that song.
When you’re trying to name a face in a film, you don’t just resign yourself to “I don’t know,” you sit there and you think about it until you can place that person.
And the reason why you do these things, is because eventually they build up your recall memory. Your ability to fill that hole that you’re trying to fill.
You’re placing your memory back where it belongs.