While discussing the relationship between my favourite Heraclitus quote and cycling around Britain for the second time, a two-time acquaintance suggested I read a short article by psychoanalyst Wilfred Bion.
The four pages of Notes on memory and desire (1967) are clearly written for the psychoanalyst, but are fertile ground for anyone hoping to write a bicycling memoir.
‘Memory,’ Bion declares, ‘is always misleading as a record of fact.’
He’s not wrong: despite being consistently underestimated, our memories are naturally, even occasionally tragically, fallible.
Meanwhile, opines Bion: ‘Desires distort judgement by selection and suppression of material to be judged.’
Again, horribly accurate: the halo effect being just one of a panoply of cognitive biases where our desires corrupt our conclusions.
Memory & Desire = Bad Bad?
Bion is pretty damning about the effect of memory and desire on the workings of psychoanalysis:
Memory and Desire exercise and intensify those aspects of the mind that derive from sensuous experience.
However inconvenient the distortions of memory and desire may be for psychoanalysts, they are good things for the writers of bicycling memoirs.
Cycling around the coast of Britain is indeed a sensuous experience and anything that intensifies that experience can only help the sensationalist storyteller.
Stories would be pretty dull if the writer’s fallible memory didn’t trim the facts, nor desire distort, select and suppress.
However: where Bion gets interesting is in his discussion of the ride itself, especially for those of us who repeatedly cover the same ground.
Staying Present = Improv?
Bion uses the metaphor of the psychoanalytic session, but I’m pretty sure he was talking about cycling around Britain twice when he wrote:
sessionbike ride attended by the psychoanalystbicyclist must have no history and no future.
What is ‘known’ about
the patientBritain is of no further consequence: it is either false or irrelevant. […] The only point of importance in any sessionbike ride is the unknown. Nothing must be allowed to distract from intuiting that. […]
psychoanalystbicyclist should aim at achieving a state of mind so that at every sessionride he feels he has not seen the patientBritain before. If he feels he has, he is treatingriding the wrong patientride.
Staying present is not only the work of the psychoanalyst, but also the bicycling memoirist and, of course, our old friend Heraclitus:
No man can step into the same river twice, for it is not the same river and he is not the same man.
Every landscape, every town, every human and beastly interaction is happening for the first time, every time, and the ride is an embedded, embodied improvisation: ‘Yes, and…’
Improv, like a good bike ride, only works when you’re open, creative, responsive and curious — four ways of saying the same thing — to what’s inside you, what’s around you, and to your partners and props on the stage.
SIDE BAR: Keith Johnstone, RIP
Keith Johnstone, who taught so many actors, directors and comedians the games of improvisation, died last week.
There are people who prefer to say ‘Yes’, and there are people who prefer to say ‘No’. Those who say ‘Yes’ are rewarded by the adventures they have, and those who say ‘No’ are rewarded by the safety they attain.
That’s a quote from Keith Johnstone’s Impro: Improvisation and the Theatre (neat summary here by James Clear).
Impro For Storytellers, his second book, perceptibly changed my life after picking it up at random from a shelf at Oxford library in 2003. The subtitle is ‘The Art Of Making Things Happen’. It works.
There is, of course, more to improv than The Cult Of Yes, And… As Keith Johnstone points out in this 2017 interview, ‘a story that only says yes is a very limited story form […] A master improviser can do what they like’.
The point is to help your partner in the improvisation, not to try to screw them up. A lesson worth holding onto. Thanks, Keith.
Staying Present With Notes
The only difference between a good improviser and a writer is that the writer takes notes. Which Bion would have hated.
Somewhat grumpily, Bion declares that notes should be ‘confined to matters that can be recorded’, i.e. bugger all.
Instead, Bion commands us to obey his number one rule:
Do not remember past
sessionsbike rides. The greater the impulse to remember what has been said or done, the more the need to resist it. […]
The supposed events must not be allowed to occupy the mind. Otherwise the evolution of the
sessionbike ride will not be observed at the only time when it can be observed — while it is taking place.
Here, from time to time, the bicycling memoirist must respectfully disagree.
Writing, on my typewriter, eyes up, following the fluency of my fingers, helps me observe and recall my experience of the world around me in more detail, not less.
Like this, from my ride diary back on 2 August 2020:
Sunny lanes. Pandora told me about how Airbnb is ruining Athens so she can’t live in the areas she used to. She also told me about Halloween Alley Cat Races.
We detoured through a prison and passed another group of cyclists.
‘What were those cyclists pointing at?’ she asked.
‘They’re turning right,’ I said.
Nothing serves noticing more than notating. And nothing serves the reader more than writers who notice.
From Desire To Curiosity
I’ll leave you with a note on how Bion’s desecration of desire pertains to the bicycling memoirist.
Bion’s second rule for psychoanalysts is this:
Desires for results, ‘cure’ or even understanding must not be allowed to proliferate.
My initial response was YES. Desire for a particular result takes us out of an experience.
I teared up reading the end of Mark Beaumont’s book about his round the world record attempt, but that was the tension release triggered by the climax of a hard-fought result. His desire for the world record overtook any sense of experience: I remember nothing of his ride and I suspect he scarcely does either.
The reason I rode around Tunisia the year after I first cycled the coast of Britain was precisely because I wanted to take it more slowly and prove to myself that I could indulge experience over ‘getting there’.
Irritatingly, Bion would seem to be correct again: desire interferes with experience.
Then I paused: is this not a cop-out?
Freed from spontaneous impulses of desire, the bicycling memoirist is also excused from courage to retreat into their shell of individual experience.
A sign pointing the way to Twatt Church. A conversation overheard. A rumour passed around of a quarry camp. The salt wash scent of the ocean. The intriguingly lengthy queue for a hot stone bakery.
Are these petty squirts of desire not also the ripe ingredients of adventure?
There is nuance to Bion’s declaration. Yes, desire for a particular result takes us out of an experience, but it must be distinguished from our healthy desire to experience more: it must be distinguished from our curiosity.
Desire is forcing our way into a house: never going to end in anything better than a cricket bat to the belly. Curiosity is gently pushing on the door and seeing whether it opens, with a smile.
Thanks to everyone who responded to my first Writing In Public post on Coasting. Thanks in advance if your mouse is right now hovering over the Reply button.
Special thanks to two-time acquaintance CW for introducing me to the insane ideas of Wilfred Bion and for leading me through my own memory and desire.