See the photo? The latch, lock and handle it shows are now in your memory, as an image rather than a physical object, for you cannot see the colour or the setting. Yet, dwell on the image for a moment, and you can imagine what these particulars might be, because you know how old wooden doors come, cracked, bleached by bright sunlight, perhaps with remnants of paint, green or blue. You know that this door is not set in a Persimmon home or a branch of Tesco, but in something built of stone or ancient brick. You could guess quite a bit about this door simply out of memory.
And stories? Many stories seem to be pure inventions. Except that everything the writer imagines – every character, event, expectation, prediction – comes in bits and pieces from our memory. Imagination takes memory as feedstock, and distorts, diminishes, exaggerates, analogises and recolours, often until it is unrecognisable. Even our most grotesque and bizarre ‘creations’ derive from what we already know in some elemental sense.
And reading stories? You read ‘He sobbed’, no more than that, and you can see tears, hands to the face, hunched shoulders and the shudders that betray emotional pain. Good short stories, I think, ask the reader to do more filling-in than a novel might. Judging how much to demand of the reader is one of the knacks of short story writing.
Even when stories do not purport to be inventions and instead recount real events, the short story writer tries to make them art, something reflective or lyrical or amusing or shocking. Again, the writer relies on the reader’s memory to fill out the scene.