I sometimes think I’m a bit of a wreck, physically. First, I’m slightly deaf, which means I annoy people by asking them to repeat themselves, especially when there’s any background noise. Then, I have prosopagnosia, or face blindness, and so have difficulty recognizing people from their faces alone. I generally rely on hair styles, context, clothes and voice recognition to get by – although when I meet people in unexpected situations these aids aren’t always available and the results can be embarrassing. (My nadir came when I failed to recognize my own daughter, who was helping out at a local cafe.) Oh, and I almost forgot, my memory isn’t too reliable either. At least, it has a habit of squishing people, places and events together, consolidating all my separate memories into one manageable reminiscence. Some might say that a person as decrepit as I am has no business writing at all, especially for children.
On the other hand, for a writer there are advantages to looking at the world as reflected in a funhouse mirror. You see things that no one else has seen, at least from that angle. Witness the novelist Henry Green: he too was rather deaf, and it was a deficit he treasured because he found that the sentences he misheard were frequently more interesting than what people had actually said - as in this example from a 1958 Paris Review interview:
INTERVIEWER: I've heard it remarked that your work is “too sophisticated” for American readers, in that it offers no scenes of violence—and “too subtle,” in that its message is somewhat veiled. What do you say?
GREEN: Unlike the wilds of Texas, there is very little violence over here. A bit of child killing, of course, but no straight shootin'. After fifty, one ceases to digest; as someone once said: “I just ferment my food now.” Most of us walk crabwise to meals and everything else. The oblique approach in middle age is the safest thing. The unusual at this period is to get anywhere at all—God damn!
INTERVIEWER: And how about “subtle”?
GREEN: I don't follow. Suttee, as I understand it, is the suicide—now forbidden—of a Hindu wife on her husband's flaming pyre. I don't want my wife to do that when my time comes—and with great respect, as I know her, she won't . . .
INTERVIEWER: I'm sorry, you misheard me; I said, “subtle”—that the message was too subtle.
GREEN: Oh, . How dull!
Green was being mischievous, of course, but slight deafness (while tedious for everyone else) does indeed offer such solipsistic pleasures, a way of swerving one’s mind off the beaten track of polite conversation and into the pathless wilderness of imagination. All writers need a way of doing that: no mishearings, no mondegreens.
I've yet to find as productive a use for my prosopagnosia, but it's sometimes pleasant to let familiar faces pass before me in a nameless parade, especially if their owners aren't present to be offended. It’s as if the usual compulsion to attach words to things were temporarily suspended and one had entered a state of preverbal infancy, a holiday from language itself. The other night, for example, I watched , a fundraising telethon featuring many such unnamed celebrities, and thoroughly enjoyed the downtime. Mind you, even that experience was interrupted by the occasional pyrotechnic display of firing neurons as a name crackled into life – for example when that ordinary-looking bloke sitting behind Derren Brown suddenly revealed himself as Martin Freeman by dint of opening his mouth. (I still, however, mistook Christian Jessen for Daniel Craig.)
As for memory and its tricks – well, that’s a subject for another post, I think, for its devious ways are both creative and legion. I only hope I remember to write it.
Meanwhile, I feel a little sorry for those people with twenty-twenty vision and photographic memories. They miss so much.