Quantum Mechanics and Memory: A Manual for Writers

A great fictional physicist once said, “We’re all puppets . . . I’m just a puppet who can see the strings.” The physicist was Jon Osterman, also known as Dr. Manhattan from the graphic novel, Watchmen. Watchmen itself showed us the strings behind the conventions of the comic book genre and how they would operate in a world that more resembled the real one we live in. We see that a lab accident that atomically rips apart a man and reconstructs him as a blue-skinned godlike being that can reconstitute matter and see all points in the time stream simultaneously would change his point of view, would potentially both elevate him above the rest of humanity and make him indifferent to the plight of the rest of humanity. When we have the power to see the strings that pull us to and fro, our point of view on the world and ourselves changes for better or worse. Writers already know this and fortunately, we don’t need to be in a lab accident to find this out. We do sometimes feel the fabric of our lives torn apart at a quantum level and then thrown back together, changing us each time. We see the world and we see the strings and we try our best to create worlds to become godlike ourselves.

The creative act itself is a godlike power, a power within each human. What separates the writer from those who aren’t writers is not only the ability to see the strings that pull them, but also then to explain to others how those strings work. Others think a writer’s ability to explain is synonymous with the ability to control. Dr. Manhattan would remind us this isn’t so. In fact, if we actually scrutinize the worlds we as writers create under the metaphorical electron microscope, we see that at best, we might be minor gods and, at worst, we are pretenders to the throne. We may think of our ideas as if they were unruly children that are difficult to control, but in fact writers are like children playing in the backyard on a swing set someone else built for us.

So what are these forces that pull us to and fro? Where do the raw materials come from that help those ideas come from our minds as if Athena sprang from our heads? They are the events in our lives that we cannot control. They are the tasks we undertake thinking that they will yield one result but unexpectedly yield something else. They are, in some instances, the plans that go off without a hitch. They are the forces that we access through our memory.

As I write about memory, I remember my first conscious memories of discovering the power of the written word. It is the spring of 1993 and I am 17 years old, living in Shirley, New York. I do not consider myself a writer yet. My English teacher Ms. Bauer tells our class about the thriving writing community on Long Island. She reads us a children’s story written by Mr. Pike, another English teacher at William Floyd High School. She tells us about Betty and Michael Paraskevas, and I am intrigued by their stories as I am also Greek. But this does nothing but slightly crack the door to my desire to write.

In 1993, I am also sitting in Mr. Merolla’s Music Theory class and I am bored, and I am curious as to what makes people tick. So I write a poem. It is designed to both entertain those who love heavy metal music and shock those who don’t. Both audiences reside in this classroom. My 2013 self will understand deeply what my 1993 self understands only instinctually about reaching your audience. The poem I write contains shocking imagery; when I write an essay about this poem in 2013, I will struggle to remember if there may have been something in the poem about blood and skulls. The poem is passed among the members of the class as the lesson goes on. It is a success and performs its intended purpose of entertaining half my audience and shocking the other half. I note this success and continue, writing a poem each day for about two months. Then Mr. Merolla catches my poem as it makes the rounds through his class. He reads it out loud. I will remember for the rest of my life being initially embarrassed, then amused as the poem again does its intended dual task, and Mr. Merolla says he thought it entertaining. I do not equate this power with my ability to write for I do not understand nuances such as this yet, but I feel powerful.

Now it is October of 1996. At this time, I feel like a failure as I could not handle the workload as an engineering major at the University of Maryland a mere six months previously. I am aware of the fact that I love the Creative Writing Class I am currently taking at Suffolk Community College in Riverhead, New York. I love the class but feel insecure, and I am sitting outside Professor Donovan’s class to have a mid-semester conference with him. I pick up Dan’s Papers now on a regular basis as I have missed my home after two years of living in College Park. I enjoy the illustrations by Michael Paraskevas. A month previously, I wrote a story for this class called “Another Night” about a powerless woman. In 2013, I will realize I felt powerless in 1996 and explored this idea of feeling powerless through my writing. I will also think that in 1996 I hoped to never feel powerless again. My 2013 self will be glad my 1996 self knows nothing of what forms of powerlessness await him. At that moment however, Professor Donovan invites me into his office and we discuss my writing. He tells me I have talent and that it is publishable. I am shocked and I feel power. My 2013 self will feel powerful when remembering this moment.

The strings in time that have power over us are the strings we call memory. They can be a tapestry, a web, a ball of yarn all tangled together or a bunch of strings lined up in a piano or on a harp. Sometimes they are all these at once. They pull and we as writers move, just as our characters, our universes, move on their own and under our power simultaneously. There are many other memories that pull me just as I know there are many that pull others, but seeing the strings does not mean we control them. While some may ignore human affairs, some may only consider them rather superficially, and some may be crushed by the gravitas of a world which they do not control, writers are sustained by an interest in understanding the world through recreation, in the most literal meaning of the world. At the end of Watchmen, Dr. Manhattan, after feeling disconnected from humanity for so long, is reminded that through the events of the story, he now has regained that connection. He tells his friend that he does indeed feel that interest in human life and then says, “I think perhaps I’ll create some.”