The great editor Maxwell Perkins once wrote, “Anybody can find out if he is a writer. If he were a writer, when he tried to write of some particular day, he would find in the effort that he could recall exactly how the light fell and how the temperature felt, and all the quality of it. Most people cannot do it. If they can do it, they may never be successful in a pecuniary sense, but that ability is at the bottom of writing, I am sure.”
When I recently came across this quote, what immediately leapt to mind was Proust’s wonderful “episode of the madeleines.” In A la Recherche du Temps Perdu, the narrator is offered some tea by his mother. He accepts, which is not his custom. She sends out for some cakes, or madeleines, and he soaks one in a spoonful of tea. “No sooner had the warm liquid, and the crumbs with it, touched my palate than a shudder ran through my whole body, and I stopped, intent upon the extraordinary changes that were taking place. An exquisite pleasure had invaded my senses… with no suggestion of its origin.”
Marcel revels in the feeling the tea has provoked and marvels at its clarity and intensity but “cannot interpret” it. He wonders if he can pinpoint the cause of this “all-powerful joy”—his ruminations on the very process of self-examination will fascinate anyone inclined to introspection—and attempts to track it down. He takes another sip hoping “the magnetism of an identical moment” will bring to mind the source he is certain is locked in his unconscious, but tasting it again causes the experience to lose some of its magic. He puts himself in the exact moment of drinking that first sip but is unable “to follow and recapture once again the fleeting sensation.” After clearing his head he conjures that first taste again. He feels something stir but no definite associations arise. Only after ten tries does he recall the event associated with the taste—morning tea with his aunt as a child—and leaves for another time why this memory made him so happy.
We’re all born with the ability to perceive our reality on multiple, even infinite, levels. As children we whole-heartedly embrace every experience; as adults we often feel foolish doing so. But every experience is compound and multi-layered; there is a complex of thoughts and feelings associated with unbuttoning your shirt and locking your car door and stepping on an ant and holding your neighbor’s baby, let alone an event of any significance. All those sensory perceptions, emotional responses, and thought processes are felt and recorded. But we have to place value on them so we can experience them fully at the time, so we can study them to better understand our own processes, and so we can call them to memory. Proust writes, “the smell and taste of things remain poised… and bear unfaltering… the vast structure of recollection.”
I have a “tea” memory myself, although not as profound as Proust’s. It is late fall; it is not yet six o’clock but the lamppost across the street is already casting a pale pool of light onto the pavement. My sister two years older than me and I have been studying all afternoon in our rooms. Our mother calls us to take a break from our homework. She’ll spend a few minutes away from her chores, too. She’s fixed orange pekoe tea and laid out cinnamon crisps. The three of us sit at the kitchen table and munch on the crisps and sip our tea and chat about our day and what the neighbors are up to. The pressure cooker on the stove whistles merrily; when the potatoes are done Mom will add milk and butter and whip it all up into creamy potato-y goodness and my sister and I will clear the crumbs off the table and set out the silverware for dinner. But for now we just sit and sip and talk idly about nothing. Those “nothing happened” times make the best memories…
To this day, the smell of orange pekoe tea—even the phrase “orange pekoe tea”—triggers the taste of the tea and cinnamon crisps and the memory of those long ago days, and once again I feel the warmth of those autumn afternoons with my sister and mother.
We writers notice everything. We are writing, in our heads, an experience even as we live it. Like Snoopy describing eating his own dinner (“the famous WWI flying ace attacks his bowl of dog food”), we mentally chronicle the events of our lives for general life-logging purposes, for inspiration, and for later use in conversation or story. We regard the whole of our lives as fodder for our Art, and easily recall “exactly how the light fell and how the temperature felt, and all the quality of it.” It’s what creative people do, what we must do. It’s all about the madeleines.