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Memory versus Journals: Sept. 11

When I took the great Don George‘s writing class, one of the best pieces of advice he gave seems like the most obvious, but I’m amazed at how often I fail to follow it: Take copious notes!

When you’re having an amazing travel experience, it’s easy to think, “I could never forget this piazza beneath the bluest sky or these porpoises leaping from the bay.” Oh, couldn’t you?

I recently found a journal that I had forgotten writing, about an experience that was less joyous than the above, but definitely memorable. It was from our September 2001 trip to China, including my contemporary account of the events of 9/11. Since I recently wrote about those same events from memory, today I’m sitting down to compare how my memory stood up to what I wrote back then.

The first thing I noticed is that, of course, there were details I had forgotten. Like, when I was standing around having a drink with my friends and news started coming in about the disaster via cell phones, the first report we heard said that eight people were dead. The next call we got said that the tower that had been struck completely collapsed.

“It must be a mistake,” one of my American journalist friends said.

My memory was confused about what we knew before we saw the first televised images. According to my journal, we heard about the second tower getting hit while we were in the car, via cell phone, and found out that the Pentagon had been hit when we got to our friend’s apartment.

I had forgotten that the reason we went that night into the office of China Daily, whose campus we were staying on, was to get the keys to a neighbor’s apartment, where we were crashing on the floor.

My brain completely erased this exchange with a taxi driver the morning after:

Him: Are you angry?

Me: Angry? No, kind of scared.

Him: You should be angry. Even I’m angry.

And then, this one is crazy: The American-born Chinese entrepreneur I spent Sept. 12 with hadn’t yet grasped the impact of what had happened back in the US. Apparently he had not yet watched any of the footage on TV. Here’s how our initial conversation went:

Him: I’ve very tired. I didn’t get much sleep last night.

Me: Neither did I.

Him: Yes, but while you were having fun, I was discussing business with our Chinese partner.

Me: I wasn’t having fun! I was watching news about the attacks on the US. It was anything but fun.

The young Chinese woman I’d hired as an interpreter for our meetings had been watching most of the night, so she helped fill him in.

Then he said: “I just worry how this will affect the economy.”

I told him my opinion that it would damage the economy gravely, and informed him that the stock market was currently suspended and that his flight back to the US might be cancelled.

He got quiet.

I had forgotten how, on the second evening of watching CNN, my friends and I kept nodding off in front of the TV and then shaking each other awake when something happened, like when President Bush spoke.

And then there are all the details I included from memory that I never bothered writing in my journal, like the Chinese girlfriend of one of our hosts asking over and over, “What happened to the plane?” after we watched the repeat of the plane disappearing into the tower. And I didn’t journal at all about how scared I’d been in turbulence on our domestic flights on that trip, although that memory is still strong in my mind 20 years later.

What impressed me most, although it shouldn’t be surprising, is how completely I had forgotten events not connected to the September 11 attacks. I can still picture the apartment where we watched the events unfold that night, a place I’d never visited before or since. But I had completely forgotten that two days later, Erik and I spent so much time visiting our old friends at SinoFile that we missed our flight from Beijing to Chengdu and had to spend most of the day sitting around at the Beijing Airport.

In summary, like Don said: Take copious notes! I really appreciate having this book I found. Now I need to dig into the rest of my old travel journals and find out what other trips I have forgotten taking notes on.

P.S. When I told Nutmeg about this piece, she shared with me this article she’d just read in psychology class about how many of us insert inaccuracies into our supposedly clear memories of big, emotional events. In context of this article, I’m actually proud of how closely my “freehand” memory hewed to the memories written in my journal. The biggest mistake I can find in my memory is that I misremembered that we had taken taxis from our duck banquet to the bar street before the attacks unfolded; my journal reminded me that we walked there. But I didn’t put the mistake about taxis into my blog post because my memory had already been corrected by another friend’s account.