On Legacy Writing & The Gift of Remembering

memory tattooby: Jess Hagemann

Everyone has a story to share; not just presidents and kings. Preserving your memories is a gift to yourself and everyone who knows you, a gift to which I can personally testify. — Jess

EDITOR: I urge you to read this article and preserve your story while you can, because it will mean a lot to your family after you’re gone. This article reminds me of the memories my mom left in a hand-written book, Grandma was Quite a Girl.” And it reminds me to mention other articles on this site about preserving your legacy.

Why One Man Tattooed His Memories on His Body.

When director Christopher Nolan released Memento in 2000, the National Institute of Mental Health hailed the film as “a perfect exploration of the neurobiology of memory.” In Memento, protagonist Leonard Shelby suffers from anterograde amnesia, or the inability to create new memories following a trauma. (That is, Leonard’s short-term memory is completely shot, while his long-term memory remains intact). To make up for the fact that he can no longer mentally record the day-to-day events of his life, Leonard begins tattooing ‘clues’ onto his body at the end of each day, so that when he wakes in the morning the tattoos might trigger or reinform his daily experiences. Tattoos! A permanent, physical manipulation of the human body, just to remember something—that’s how urgently important memories are to the human race!

Actually, the scientific process for memory-making is not so very different from tattooing. The region of the brain known as the hippocampus plays a critical role in categorizing short-term memories for long-term storage throughout the cerebellum. The brain itself has billions of neurons (nerve cells) that send messages to one another across narrow gaps (called synapses). Neuroscientist Eric Kandel, who shared the 2000 Nobel for Medicine, has shown how short-term memories—those lasting a few minutes—involve relatively quick and simple chemical changes to a synapse that make it work more efficiently. Long-term memories, on the other hand—those lasting hours, days or years—require the manufacturing of new proteins and the reconfiguration of the brain’s micro-structures, such that they are literally built into (tattooed upon) the body.

So, whether you’re intentionally injecting inks into the dermal layer of the skin, or unintentionally altering your brain chemistry every time you record a sense perception, the point is that memories are something we very naturally, at a biologically fundamental level, want and expect to keep around for a very long time. They’re part of our legacy, as it is through shared memories that we live on in the hearts and minds of our loved ones long after we’re gone. Memory is also distinctly individualistic. It directs our formative years, fuels the nature/nurture debate, and makes us, us. Accordingly, we do everything we can (including, sometimes, tattooing) to hold on to them.

Preserving Your Legacy

Short of tattooing, we take photographs, keep journals, write blogs, paint landscapes, and post to Facebook and Twitter to preserve memories, to share memories, to proclaim what’s important and hold dear what is sacred: the lived self, and all its myriad experiences. Unfortunately, it can still be a losing battle. Age, Alzheimers, amnesia, and other accidents can strike out of the blue.

Do you have a favorite memory? A story you love to tell and retell, a turning point or a moment that truly defined you? What do these experiences say about you today, and what will they say about you after you’re gone?

Imagine getting to write the story now that will outlive you tomorrow. Legacy writing is not a new thing; it’s merely newly trendy again. Since the advent of cuneiform in 4th century BC Sumeria, scribes were employed to record the histories of great empires, their leaders and lands. But as we know, everyone has a story to share, not just presidents and kings. You are the hero of your life. Preserving your memories is a gift to yourself and everyone who knows you, a gift to which I can personally testify.

Just four days before my grandfather passed, I presented him with a bound copy of his own book—the one we’d spent a year writing together. Because we couldn’t be physically together during the process, he recorded answers to the questions that I asked him and I transcribed those recordings from halfway around the world. He turned to the first page of his own story on his seventy-fifth birthday; he would die within the week, very peacefully. My grandmother says that having that book is what allowed him to let go, knowing his memories had been preserved and he would not be forgotten.

Who do you know with a story to tell? What is your own story? I urge you to write it, and if you don’t know how to start, to engage the kind help of a professional writer. The great Johnny Depp once said, “My body is my journal, and my tattoos are my story.” If tattoos aren’t your thing (or even if they are), there is still something profoundly therapeutic in being heard, in leaving your permanent mark. Begin your book. Share your story at ciderspoonstories.com

About the Author

Jess Hagemann is an Austin-based freelance writer & editor. She is always traveling in search of a good story, and especially loves learning about international cultural practices surrounding memory and memory-keeping.