Nicholas M. Stillman’s story “The Memory Dresser” was published in Metaphorosis on Friday, 24 May 2019.
This story started, like most stories, with an observation. I was sitting in bed with my then-wife, and she was holding out her hair to me, clipped off like held by imaginary scissors.
I want to get my hair cut to here, she said. Her eyes pinched and she looked closely at the strands. But it’s hard. Think of all the things that this hair has been through.
I nodded. Then nodded more emphatically as I felt that familiar euphoria that writers feel when their story brain, constantly scanning for entries, unearths something tantalizing.
That’s a story, I said.
How? she said.
I don’t know, I said.
It stayed an idea until my then-wife left, thus bridging the distance between then and now. The absence was like removing a limb. I felt keenly that I had lost part of myself, that half of my collective memories from the last decade had suddenly vanished. That feeling of loss at not only losing someone but losing your own past was the impetus for the first drafts of “The Memory Dresser.” Of course, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind already existed, though I hadn’t yet seen it.
It was later, while reading Frank Herbert’s Dune, that I decided to build a world where memory is malleable, external, and able to be hidden. The possibilities for stories in a world like that felt endless.
The first draft of that story garnered me an acceptance into an MFA program. The second and third netted me rejections from magazines, but with it a feeling of progress. I was getting closer to something I considered true, but still hadn’t reached.
The characters of Mina and Tengi had been in the drafts for so long that I took for granted the power of their emotional conflicts. In this latest version, I wanted to capture the disparate feelings of pretending to have had a great past and not feeling the need to reveal trauma to the world. I wanted to investigate the differences between coping, hiding, and repressing, and physicalize them in a fantasy setting where I felt I could better wrestle with them.
As I evolved my understanding of the connection between how we present ourselves to the world and how we choose to define that presentation, the final scene’s ethical implications evolved as well. The decision to cut all the memories no longer felt heroic to me, as it did in the earliest draft. Is eliminating your past an ethical way to handle trauma? Is there a “proper” way? The characters had made their decision, but I had still had questions and wanted to follow them to see how it turned out. Like them, I’m still feeling in the dark from what comes next.
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