There was a time my brain acted like an effective sponge. From the moment I fell in love the idea of method acting at the age of 16, I could absorb lines and their preceding cues with ease. In my sophomore year of high school, my friend James cast me in his 20 page scripted short film Fight A Force of Friendly Fire as Alejandro, a meek man who discovers a drinkable household commodity that can boost confidence, and in its highest doses, lead to aggression and violence. I was hooked on the rush of performance. At the same time, Inside the Actor’s Studio was mainstay on Bravo. I heard some of my favorites; Dustin Hoffman, Al Pacino, Robin Williams, and Robert De Niro, all talk about the craft. I decided this was what I wanted to dedicate my life to: becoming the next great American method actor, and that would start with a serious study of stage acting, in the same way my idols got started.
I auditioned for school plays, and at first wasn’t cast in substantial roles, until my senior year in the production of Tom Jones, adapted from the 1,000 page novel by Henry Fielding, where I played the character of Partridge, who also served as the narrator. As I went through the script with a highlighter, I discovered I had a shit ton of lines. But it excited me and I was quick to be off book, impressing many of my peers, and from then on memorizing lines wasn’t something I sweated.
I went on to study theatre at Columbia College Chicago, and tried to keep myself busy in shows, either through the school, or independently, to take on any opportunity on top of scenes and monologues assigned in class. This constant exercise of my memory, perhaps coupled with the visceral, emotional ride of playing a character in the throes of conflict, may be part of the reason why the years I actively did theatre, from age 16 to 25, are the most vivid for me upon recall. Small sensory details; the drifting dust illuminated under the stage lights to the temperature in the green room, silly antics at cast parties, and even the play-by-play of scenes close to 10 years later, all seem like they occurred yesterday. The clarity sometimes astounds me in comparison to that of my recall of what I did last Friday night, or what I had for lunch 3 days ago.
It may be partly due to age. I’m 32 going on 33. Not that old, but the synapses involved in converting short term memories to long term memories may have begun to lose its youthful edge. My peak cognitive condition may have passed. I also can’t help but think it’s exacerbated by how little I practice withdrawing information from my memory bank.
At around the age of 25 I began to take a greater interest in the writing process. I felt I had more creative control, it was freeing to get down to work and create whatever story I wanted. I also started to fall in love with language and the reading experience, valuing my nights at home cozied up with an engrossing book, versus rushing off to rehearsal right after work. My creative activities changed from absorbing the words of a playwright and keeping them at the forefront of my mind, to writing down words of my own. An idea would come for a story, and with it some sentences, and I would feel the urge to write them down as soon as possible, in fear the idea might slip away. After several years of following this flow, neglecting the exercise that is memorizing large chunks of text, I feel myself ever more in need of scribbling out ideas before they vanish. There’s the occasional sentence that comes to mind at an inconvenient moment to write, and when the moment does come to write, I may forget one particular word, that at the time, seemed absolutely perfect, or the sentence as a whole seems murky and out of reach and it’s downright stressful.
I was recently at work, turning over the idea for a short story that had me gushing with its possible brilliance. Then I received a phone call that lasted half an hour, and half an hour later the idea was completely lost, not even on the tip of my tongue. When this happens I try to find solace in convincing myself that if it was actually a great idea, if it was indeed brilliant, it’ll come back to me. But they rarely do.
I further entrench this trend by writing to-do lists for sometimes only two things that need to get done on a given day. Studies indicate writing something down helps commit it to memory, which I do find to be true. Once I’ve written the to-do list, I don’t always need it, unless it contains a subsection of an extensive grocery list. After I’ve written the draft of a story, the idea becomes more crystallized. But if it doesn’t make it to the page and time ticks away and other stimuli accumulate to clutter my awareness of an overall day, it can be with great difficulty that I may recapture only some of an idea’s exactitude at its onset.
I’ve become reliant on the process of securing thoughts on an external sort of bank; a notebook, a Word doc, a text file on my phone, and less so on the bank allotted me in the wet organ housed inside of my skull. With great advances in GPS and tools for navigation, like Waze, my instinct and sense of direction diminishes. I sometimes wonder if despite all of our technological advances, if such technology in the end frees us to use our mental energies on other pursuits, or if it serves as an incubator for overall atrophy. I wonder if we were at our cognitive peak before written language steered us away from the oral tradition, from carrying the details of an epic tale in our heads and passing it along for a new generation to download and preserve just by listening. I wonder if the most effective boot camp for my cognitive health is not playing brain games on apps like Lumosity, or Elevate, but to memorize a long monologue and get on my feet with it. Drifting away from acting has almost been tantamount to losing my ATM pin code for access to riches in the currency of recollection.
It was about 10 years ago that I reminisced with my friend James, who I mentioned earlier. He drew blanks when I brought up an incident from our shared past. He turned to me and said “you remember a lot of weird little things.” Here I am now, grasping at the complete absence of what memory I had been recounting at the time. The only thing I remember is that I was once told I have a good memory.
Jeff Phillips is a washed up varsity cross country skier and storefront theatre method actor. For two years he was co-host of The Liquid Burning, an apocalypse themed reading series, and for just shy of three years, he co-hosted the Chicago reading series Pungent Parlour. His short fiction has appeared in Seeding Meat, This Zine Will Change Your Life, Metazen, Chicago Literati, and Literary Orphans. He has dabbled with a few self-publishing experiments, including the novel Votary Nerves, and is the co-founder of Zizobotchi Papers, a literary journal dedicated to the novella. He is now a regular contributor of short stories and essays at the site Drinkers With Writing Problems..