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.