Last time we talked about taking a cue from Dani Shapiro and attempting to tell the story as we’re inside of it—potentially before the story has become a story. This requires us to write about life as it’s unfolding, trying to find the story in the actions and interactions that take place. We begin “capturing the living moments,” to borrow a phrase from Anais Nin.
What if the events we want to write about took place long ago, before we thought about writing anything down? What if we must rely entirely on memory for material?
It’s in Us
After all, most formative experiences smack us, scar us, and sink into our core in the early years. As Flannery O’Connor said, “Anybody who has survived his childhood has enough information about life to last him the rest of his days” (84, Mystery and Manners)
And Willa Cather said in an interview, “I think that most of the basic material a writer works with is acquired before the age of fifteen. That’s the important period: when one’s not writing. Those years determine whether one’s work will be poor and thin or rich and fine.”
If that’s true, all that we need to write short- and long-form memoir is in us. Somewhere.
How to Dredge Up Memories
How do we get to those long-ago memories? How do we bring up the sensory details that will help us recreate scenes? How can we reach the names of the people with us that day on the farm or what color the wallpaper was in the room where an argument took place? Is there a way to recreate sequence and timelines? Can our minds still hear the tap of a pencil against the desk? Or was it a pen?
Dorothea Brande’s 30-Minute Memory Break and Artistic Coma
One method for dredging up memories you want to write about is to set aside time to recall.
Recalling allows us to draw from our reservoir of memories, those moments when we’ve noticed and retained something in the past—something worth revisiting.
Dorothea Brande suggests a simple way to engage memory:
[S]et…a short period each day when you will, by taking thought, recapture a childlike “innocence of eye.” For half an hour each day transport yourself back to the state of wide-eyed interest that was yours at the age of five. Even though you feel a little self-conscious about doing something so deliberately that was once as unnoticed as breathing, you will still find that you are able to gather stores of new material in a short time.
She also recommends an “artistic coma,” and these two ideas could work in tandem—lie down for about 30 minutes and let go of all distractions. That quieted, almost comatose, state can create receptivity to the images, sounds, textures, and people of the past.
When that material emerges during the quiet—some of it stepping out of the swamp of the past, dripping with muck—it’s time to write. Write fast. Write everything you’re given, because those slippery memories will slip away again again if they aren’t captured.
Bill Roorbach: Write to Release
While Brande recommends a time of recall to tease out memories followed by the act of writing, Bill Roorbach says memories can bubble to the surface as we write. In his book Writing Life Stories, he claims:
One of the many curious things about the act of writing is the way it can give access to the unconscious mind. And in the hidden parts of consciousness lie not only hobgoblins and neurotic glimmers, but lots of regular stuff, the everyday stuff of memory. The invisible face of your grade school bully is in there, somewhere, and the exact smell of the flowers on vines in your grandma’s backyard, along with most everything else. (19, Writing Life Stories)
With this method, start writing and trust that the memories hidden in the recesses of your unconscious mind will rise up as your pen covers the page or your fingers fly across the keyboard.
Try both methods of recalling the past.
You can start with Roorbach’s method as soon as you’re done reading this piece. When you reach the end, pick up a pen and start writing.
Or, you could find 30 minutes today to deliberately still your body and mind in hopes of creating a memory-friendly state. And then pick up a pen and start writing.
Either way, I hope you dredge up all the details of all the stories you’ve always want to tell.
- Willa Cather interview: Bookman, 3 May 1921, published in Willa Cather in Person: Interviews, Speeches, and Letters, Selected and edited by L. Brent Bohlke, Lincoln & London: University of Nebraska Press, 1986.
- Roorbach quote: Writing Life Stories: How to Make Memories into Memoirs, Ideas into Essays, and Life into Literature, by Bill Roorbach, Cincinnati, OH: Story Press. 1998. Print.
- BrainPickings article featuring Anaïs Nin
- Dorothea Brande’s classic book on writing, Becoming a Writer.
- Dani Shapiro, Hourglass (Amazon affiliate link)
- Ep 116: Can You Write Your Story Before It’s Become a Story?
- Ep 103: The Trouble with Memoir is a Wiggly Mind
- All podcast episodes
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