Writer in Residence

Monopoly on memory

By Jowita Bydlowska


Recently on Instagram, I saw a picture of Warszawa Centralna railway station and I was overcome by the smell and the sound the picture evoked. It smelled of damp concrete, earth, dirt and engine oil, and the sound was of a female voice trapped inside a megaphone, announcing arrivals and departures. There was another sensation and it was that of a yawn—popping in my ears and spreading in the back of my skull—and of sand under my lids: I always took the earliest trains.  I stayed in this memory for a short while, waiting for the Warszawa-Krakow, scanning the sudden, small crowds for young pickpockets with shaved heads. It was a nice memory—neither too happy nor unhappy. I didn't have a lot of emotion attached to it other than I’ve felt a little invigorated by remembering my own early youth.


Presently, I'm writing a short story about a woman who is considering getting a lobotomy. Her memories hurt her so much that she is unable to function. Therapy cannot seem to fix her. Before bed, her mind gets away from her— and even though she's getting better at her visualizing CBT exercises (imagine a box, put your sadness in the box, imagine a body of water, put the box in the water, a lake...)—suddenly, she finds herself, drowning in her own past. She is no match for herself. So, firstly in her head, she's stopping at the beach where she fell in love, in the mist of an early morning in August (he was wearing a black t-shirt and smelled of cigarette smoke); or she is in a hospital downtown, middle of the night, giving birth to her daughter, her body joyously—she feels joy despite the pain—breaking-open like a shell; or there she is gardening in June, sweating, covered in dirt. The earth smells of rain and grass as she digs holes in the ground, her fingers combing through the dirt to loosen it up. It becomes so hot she takes her top off and she experiences a profound sense of freedom... the sun rays infiltrate her entire body. Her baby daughter runs out of the backyard door, naked except for rubber boots and wraps her soft, chubby arms round the woman's waist. In real life, the woman opens her eyes and she is in bed, a man's heartbeat next to hear but even though she is not alone, everything feels wrong and she feels very alone. The day hasn't even broken through the grey of an early morning and she's crying already, overwhelmed about having to be in the world.

I understand this woman well because my business is in memories. I understand because nostalgia is my constant companion and saving up smells and sensations and sounds is part of the job of any artist. Of course artists don't have the monopoly on nostalgia but it's the main currency in our line of work. I don't know how deeply others feel, if we all perhaps feel this deeply but I know that if it wasn't for writing, I'd have to consider a lobotomy like the character in my story. I'm not being dramatic—some days I'm paralyzed by memories. Almost always the good ones. The bad ones are easy: they hurt. But it's the good ones that threaten to really undo me. I've been putting a lot of gone-happiness into those CBT boxes (like my character) in order to get them to float away. The lake is completely overcrowded. Nothing is moving; the lake is becoming a landfill. But because I am an artist and I have this ability to express my little turmoils, I use it to feed it my creativity. I give my character my pain and some of the sensations that are mine exclusively, such as what it's like to garden topless in June. I use other memories as jumping-off points to create some experiences and thoughts unique to her (I am not writing from life; I'm only borrowing here and there). I think it's cathartic. My character isn't real and she can unravel all over the pages; she can go and book her lobotomy trip. I'll go with her and live through it with her unscathed.

The views expressed in the Writer-in-Residence blogs are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book.

Jowita Bydlowska was born in Warsaw, Poland, and moved to Canada as a teen. She is the author of the bestselling memoir Drunk Mom. A journalist and fiction writer, she lives in Toronto, Canada.