thoughts on achieving depth in memory writing

I’ve read in several blogs how the writers hope to write in-depth posts on various topics  during 2010. While I think that’s an admirable goal, I’m not sure I would be able to achieve it here because I don’t feel accomplished enough in any subject to contribute anything worthier than what’s already out there. But I do believe I have a few ideas about writing family memories, ideas that transcend time. So, for what they’re worth–and I realize many may say that’s nothing–I’m experimenting today, and putting myself way out on a limb as well, by sharing some of my ideas here on Wintersong.

I remember when I was struggling to call myself a writer, I knew something was missing from the things I was producing.  I’d say things like “roundnth” is missing in this piece, and I don’t know how to fix it. I coined the world “roundnth” but a better word was already there only I couldn’t think of it at the time. Depth. There were lots of other words I needed to think about as well, like Focus. But again, another subject for another day. And before I forget, I just have to point out both for myself and anyone else who writes, those who write ARE writers. Published or not!

In the mid-90s I remember doing a writer’s short-course at a writer’s conference somewhere, I suspect probably in Tennessee. The recollection of the event itself is so dim. Yet the green-lined pages recently ripped from a notebook are real and what I read there still surprises me. It came from an exercise in “stream of consciousness” writing. If I remember correctly, writing hypnotically (subconsciously) helps to free you of the natural tendency to protect yourself from revealing YOU, which is a natural reaction in all of us. Turns out it might have been a turning point for me. You see, whether your aim is to write wonderful fiction or  creative non-fiction–dare I add blogging?–writing IS personal. Those in writer groups will know what I mean when I say that you get to know each other well when you write and read together.

I remember a woman from the creative non-fiction writing classes I facilitated when living in Las Vegas who was obviously capable of writing well-constructed essays, yet somehow they always fell a little flat. She would tell of some far past incident that had great dramatic potential, yet when she finished reading the listener would have no idea of how she felt about the event, or if and how it may have challenged her. She wrote the tale well enough, but she more or less left herself out of it. I tried to help her by highlighting areas and asking her to expound on the idea, how she felt when this or that happened, etc., but she had masterfully honed her method of keeping herself separate from her writing, and yes–protected. And technically “correct” or not, reading her pieces wasn’t that different from reading the minutes of a meeting.

It can be painful to express inner emotions such as love, fear, joy, sorrow and anger, or despair. But writers who are widely read reveal themselves through their writing. That’s the only way readers have to relate to people (characters) the writers write about. It’s the way they identify with their problems and root for them.

To illustrate the point, I’m going to fearlessly (more or less) reproduce here what was on that green-lined tablet from many years ago. Keep in mind the instructions provided for the exercise: connect with the paper! do not disconnect from the page at any point–don’t bother with punctuation or grammar. Keep pen point on the paper at all times and keep writing, even if what you’re producing is only a long and scattered line of connected scribbles. In order to make reading easier today I will add appropriate punctuation here.

I feel sleepy. I’m not really sleepy. It’s just I feel a little silly trying to connect with this paper.  The hum in the background (the refrigerator?) is nice. It feels like a clock ticking in my soul and my mind sees Grandma’s house, not the old one where Mama grew up but the one she lived as a widow. Where the rattlesnake crawled from under the house into her fireplace. Where the picture of her as a young woman was about or near the ceiling. Even as an adult I had to look high and stand close to the wall to see it. It looks like Aunt M_ _ to me and she’s not even kin except by her marriage to Uncle D_ _.

I remember the reunion there. We had tables set up in the yard and everyone brought food. I was grown and it was Easter Sunday and I had a new dress on. I thought it was so pretty when I bought it–light green flowered shirt waist with gathers, little buttons from collar to hem–and then I saw my cousin come in from church (she was a year older than me and acted hoity toity like her mama. When I saw her in her neat linen tight dress I felt so fat. And I was skinny. But I knew that dress I had on was awful and I never would wear it again.

The kids are running around the yard and I know I’ll be expected to have a kid too one day and I don’t feel like I’ll ever be grown up enough to have kids. I don’t want to get old the way my aunts and uncles who have kids seem to me.

The progression is obvious: from feeling silly (afraid to let myself go), to writing a scene on a very conscious level describing the setting my subconscious set me into (which really happened when I was around 30–eight-month-old in tow, visiting Florida after living in another state for several years), and finally into the revealing scene within a scene.

If I were writing this in a drama, I don’t believe anyone would keep reading for very long–not even with that evocative rattlesnake memory. It’s when I found myself  in the reunion scene that took place years before–that the piece begins to increase the odds of holding a reader. Why? Because, no matter how successful we become, most of us, regardless of background, can relate to similar feelings at some time in our lives. Readers not only identify with the character, they appreciate your honesty.

I decided to try this writing exercise as a five-minute experiment in the creative writing class mentioned before. Another class member who wrote in a similar way as the other writer, put herself so deeply into the exercise that she had no idea what she’d written until she read it out loud. Though I don’t remember what it said, it was so profound that she went home exhilarated with a whole new view of how she wanted to proceed in her writing.

I hope to add another thought or two about memory writing in future posts, and then I’ll stop lest I wrongfully project that I feel I’m anywhere near expert in writing. I’m still learning, but I’ve found a good way to reinforce things I’ve learned–or think I’ve learned–is to share them, and even discuss them if anyone would like to take up the challenge in comments.

One thing I know for certain about myself is that in memory writing  I have to let go my adult experiences and logic, and try to write as if I were still a child. Children haven’t learned to shade the truth or manipulate, and I believe that it will be  a good area to explore in future musings. Meanwhile, perhaps some of you would like to try the exercise yourselves. If you do, I hope you’ll let me know how it went.

14 thoughts on “thoughts on achieving depth in memory writing

  1. I’m leaving work in a minute, but I just noticed your most recent post, and of course, I had to read it. I love your “in-depth” sharing AND your philosophy of writers AND writing. I recently read the following quotation on a blog that I include with my email signature:

    “YOU are a WRITER when you BELIEVE that you ARE—and once PEOPLE BELIEVE they are WRITERS, they are ON THE PATH to a life-long LOVE of WRITING.” ~ TrAcY GaRDnEr.

    I AM a WRITER! And YOU are an AMAZING writer whose posts I HAVE to read. As always, thanks for sharing your innermost thoughts.

    PS I have more to say on this subject so I might comment again. Okay?

    • Wow. Just as I was thinking I should remove the post altogether, your comment arrives. Thank you. And I never close my comments, so I’d be very happy to have anything you want to say posted here no matter how many times.

  2. Writing from my heart is, for me, the best way. A professor who I had when I was finally finishing my B.A. in the late 80s was into a method called “process” which I simply did understand and could not do. One day when we were talking about my confusion after he’d read one of my journal entrie, his face lit up and he said, “You do the process in your head!” Yup. When I write, by the time it’s on paper, it’s pretty much done. It’s always been that way. The biggest problem is that I don’t always get things written right away and lose some thoughts.
    I should probably carry a note book with me 24/7.

    • That’s a problem I have as well, Kay. Some of my best writing has been done in my head at 3:30 a.m. when I lie awake sometimes in the dark. By the time I go back and sleep and think I’ll write it down the next morning or at the next opportunity, the passion is gone and it’s just not the same. And yes, I know that you DO write from the heart.

  3. “You write from your heart” That was what a stranger said after reading a few paras of my autobiography. He promised to have it edited, but sadly he passed away a few days later.

    He was a brother of one of my lab staffs and he was a newspaper editor!

    Do not modify what you have written…second writing will normally make you repair your story…

  4. No, No, don’t take this down. Great writing in itself. It’s an incredibly important point you make. For years I would labor over pieces like the one on Nazi Architecture, and my group would say that yes, it was very well written….but a term paper. I didn’t understand, but I’d left myself out of it.

    In today’s post, I put myself in. LOL

    Yes, always allergies. Polyps are a common side effect when you have allergies. Unfortunately the shots just made my IBS worse….it too is often triggered by allergies. For years they used a nasal spray on me called Nasacort AQ that actually dissolved the polyps. Few colds, no pain, polyps vanished. It is not generic, and so I am now on a spray that allows them to grow back vs paying hundreds of dollars for a spray. Grrrrr…..

    • Mage, I always enjoy your posts. There’s more than one way to put yourself in your writing as you know. Could that be why writing professors don’t (or can’t) out and out tell you what’s wrong with a piece? Or is the lesson that it’s better if you figure it out yourself?

  5. Have you read Anne LaMott’s Bird by Bird? If not, I think you would really like it – that was where I learned to “just write” and see what came out.

    I’m a big believer in it and my experience has been like yours, I often end up surprised at where I ended up. I set aside a notebook to be thrown away when full to try to convince myself that it’s ok to just regurgitate onto the page.

    (actually, as I’m writing this, I’m realising that I haven’t been doing that very often anymore – I must get myself back into the habit!)

    I’m glad you didn’t take this down.

    • I did read Anne Lamont’s BIRD BY BIRD. I think it’s one of the best I’ve read on writing, especially that sh***y first draft! Took me a long time to figure out what was wrong with that first draft. Now that I’m fairly good at at, the second writing is soooo much easier.

      I, too, favor this way of getting into writing, but I must admit it’s impossible for me to think about without remembering how those really into paranormal and the occult use this–or a similar–method of writing. In their case, it’s writing without reading what you’re writing because–if you’re successful at it–it’s not “you” writing the message, it’s the medium! 😉 An interesting distinction. 😛

  6. It is really interesting to read this post while writing a grant proposal on how constructing narratives helps regulate emotion. I was just taking a break after writing a paragraph about the ‘pain for gain’ piece of the proposal, where i’m sort of arguing that constructing the best kind of story about your bad experiences means temporarily feeling lousy….

    if it were NOT a grant proposal, i’d use the phrase ‘putting oneself in the story’ or something like that. but it’s a grant proposal, alas, so the more it sounds like a REALLY GOOD term paper, the better my shot at getting the money to do the research.

    It takes all kinds of writers, too, i guess!

  7. I love this! I am not the world’s best at writing but I do believe that I have the “knack”, if not the “education”. I have often thought I put too much of myself into what I write and then end up thinking “why would anyone care about that anyway?” However, as I read I am definitely drawn to the writers who put themselves into their piece. You’ve inspired me to get back to the blog … although, I must admit … this new laptop I’m typing on is enticing me too. The old computer developed so many problems we were sliding into a hate/hate relationship there for a while.

  8. I tried it, Alice, not for the first time, and I’ll write more about it in my blog. (Can’t pass up such a great opportunity.) All I got was a sore arm; I can’t let go. Good thing I don’t consider myself a writer.

  9. Hello Alice,

    This is Paul from Elders Tribune. I hope 2009 was great for you and that 2010 will be fantastic for you and your family. I was just dropping by your blog on a slow Friday at work and came across this piece on memory writing.

    Somehow, your post makes me want to be a better writer. I am still struggling to find “my voice” in writing after all these years. Your point about connecting with yourself and your reader is really resonating with me.

    So once again, you’ve proven to me what I’m missing by not visiting your blog as often as I should.

    I’ve been guilty of not keeping in touch with you as often as I’d like (you know, the usual excuses). With a new year, I hope I can find more time to connect, to reflect, and to write.


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