Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Have we met?

Sandra Parshall

I’ve spent most of my life as the person nobody remembers.

Forgettable face, painfully shy, too-soft voice, last name that a lot of people can’t even pronounce. (It’s Parshall-rhymes-with-Marshall, in case you’re interested. Not par-SHALL or Pershell or Purcell or Pars-hall.) I was used to not being remembered. In a way, that was a good thing, because I have the world’s worst memory for names and faces. If I couldn’t remember them, and they couldn’t remember me, we were always starting fresh on equal terms.

Then I published a mystery novel and started doing signings, library programs, conference panels, ABA and ALA conventions. Now a disturbing number of people do recognize me, but I still can’t remember them. Someone will come up to me and say, “I really enjoyed your talk at our library last year!” And I'll smile and say, “Oh, thank you! That’s nice to hear.” But silently, I’m frantically scouring my mental databank. Which library? Where? Is this the librarian – oh, heaven forbid I should ever offend a librarian! – or someone who attended and, bless her, bought a book? It helps enormously if we’re at an event where everyone wears a name tag. At least I’ve got the name and can fake the memory.

What’s really embarrassing is being on a panel with another writer, then not recognizing her later in the day. A close runnerup for most embarrassing is chatting with somebody for five minutes, only to have the person say, “You don’t remember me, do you?” Busted!

I don’t mean to imply that I’ve become a celebrity or anything close to one. I never have to fear being mobbed by admirers when I walk down the street. (How do movie stars and Stephen King live with that sort of thing?) No, my recognizability is limited to certain venues, and those are the places where it’s most important and gratifying. They’re also the settings in which my own lousy memory is most embarrassing.

I have to say, though, that I’ve been comforted by the knowledge that much better writers than I can’t recall faces and names either. Around Big Name writers, I’m still The Forgotten One. I can meet a well-known writer, have a conversation, even do an interview for this blog and exchange multiple e-mails, but the next time I stand in a line to have that writer sign a book, I can count on it: neither my face nor my name rings a bell. I’m just another anonymous fan.

Sometimes being forgotten is a good thing. There’s a certain writer whose work I admire so much that when I had a chance to talk one-on-one with him, I gushed and blushed and made a complete fool of myself. He was quite amused, I’m sure, and he was so kind that he kissed me on the cheek. When we attended the same conference recently, I wanted him to sign his latest book for me, but the whole time I was standing in line I was silently praying, “Please don’t remember me, please don’t remember me, please don’t remember me.” Guess what? He didn’t. For one cringe-inducing second he looked at me with what might have been recognition, but he apparently decided we hadn’t met before, and he signed the book without comment. I slunk away, enormously relieved.

Dear reader, if you and I have met before, and we meet in the future, I beg you to take my terrible memory for names and faces into account and try to be forgiving. Tell me who you are and where and when we met. It will be a pleasure to see you again.


Joyce said...

Sandy, I have a terrible time remembering names. I'll easily recognize faces, but putting a name to them sometimes is another thing. I'm getting better at it, though. I figured out that when I'm introduced to someone, I'm trying so hard not to say something stupid, that I don't pay attention to their names.

Most of the time I'm perfectly content to remain anonymous and forgettable!

Sheila Connolly said...

I realized when I was about eight that a lot of people look alike (we moved around a lot when I was young, so I met more people than I would have if I had stayed in one place). Even if you greet somebody by name, it's probably somebody else anyway.

In addition, if you run into someone you know in an unexpected context, it can be confusing. You'd recognize your neighbor in the grocery story, but not on the evening news.

Hey, I recognize you!

Anonymous said...

Sheila and I bought buttons at Malice Domestic that say, "I don't remember your name, either!"

There's a name for this: Prospagnosia. I wrote about it back in september on Writers Plot -- and Tess Gerritsen wrote about it on her blog two years ago. Knowing you're not the only one makes it a little easier to take.

That said, I did a signing last week and I remembered at least 6 people out of the hundred or so at the event. I figured that was pretty good.

Sandra Parshall said...

Sheila, I always recognize you too! You're the tall one. :-)

I know what you mean about not recognizing people in an unfamiliar context. Talk about embarrassing!