Making the Most of Memory

Sometimes I get little twinges of memories–incidental things that have happened to me a long time ago, things that were buried underneath all the new memories I’ve been  making. These memories are usually unrecorded things that make me so, “Oh, yeah; that’s right! That DID happen!” When my Muse is on  speaking terms with me, these little remembrances are just the grain of truth I need to sweeten the fiction pot, so to speak.

The other day, I was sitting at my desk, letting my mind wander when I remembered a little girl from my childhood that was murdered. This wasn’t just some girl I went to school with or saw on the bus; I knew her. She was invited to my birthday party. Little details about her and about the case came floating back: the last name of the couple responsible, what they had done to her, the date she died. I don’t know what idea it will turn into, but the memories mprinted themselves so fully on my brain, I knew I had to write them down.

It’s not always a full blown topic or idea, though. Yesterday, as my mind was out wandering at work (again), I was thinking about abuse in one of my stories. It’s tricky to write about something you have experienced, trickier still to write about something you read or heard about it. The very last thing I wanted to do was use someone else’s abuse real life abuse story. That was depressing, so I thought about summers when I was a kid. I was always with my cousins or someone else when I was really little, so nothing ever happened to me. Then I remembered coming back from a beach trip. I won’t tell you what little thing I remembered because it’s important to one of the addiction short stories I’m writing, but that detail, so minute, expanded into a whole scene. It was like when a movie comes on focused on something small like the numbers on an alarm clock, then slowly expands to reveal the whole scene: a hand shuts off the alarm; a head peeks out of rumpled covers; a man sits up; a woman sits up, scratching her head and yawning; they look at each other and scream bloody murder, each trying to cover themselves and get away at the same time.

Of course, I twisted and changed the memory to make it fiction: the girl is older, the cousins are friends, the room is different, and the addiction/abuse angle is completely fiction, but weaving in other memories, I think it could feel real.

I don’t know how many of you have encountered this, but there is a cloud on the horizon. I love the addiction stories so far, even though they’re tough work. It’s a challenge to myself to write them, and when I get one right, I feel like I’ve done my best work. However, I know if I ever do get to the point of sharing them, people will think I’m speaking from experience (if I do it right, anyway). How does one deal with that? I mean, to a certain extent it will be me; I’m using my memories and remembered feelings to construct it. But most of it will be the result of talent and hard work. I’m not too concerned about it. If I can make it so real I can convince people I have experienced it firsthand, I will take that as a compliment.

How do you make the most of your memory in writing? Do you ever use real life elements in your stories? How much of you fiction is you, is “real”?

The Gang’s All Here

Themed birthday party, ca. 1910-1915, likely i...

Image via Wikipedia

When I was a little girl, about eleven years old, I had a birthday party. I was allowed to invite anyone that I wanted to. I invited the requisite family members and all of my best friends to my house for a party overflowing with pizza, ice cream, and buttercream frosting covered yellow sheet cake. This was going to be the greatest birthday party I’d ever had. It wasn’t going to be like the time when my younger cousin (birthday two days before mine), sitting on my lap to take a birthday picture, rammed his face and chubby little hands into the cake, destroying Ms. Piggy while leaving his Raphael Ninja Turtle unscathed. It wouldn’t be like the time when four people came with the chicken pox and gave me the disease. It wasn’t going to be like the time there was a blizzard and all the guest who managed to make it got snowed in at my aunts. Yes, I was still sharing a party with my younger cousin (four years younger) and my little brother (eight years younger), but my friends would be there this year.

Only, none of those friends came. I was so diappointed. While my little brother and cousin took pictures of them with their birthday booty, I pouted in a corner. All of my friends had baulked at coming to this “baby party.” I was, once again, the only one not having fun at my birthday party.

This isn’t an example of the worst birthday I’ve ever had. I’ve been in many a more awkward situation (hanging out with drunks, for example) on my birthday. It’s not the best birthday I’ve ever had either (that would have to be the weekend my boyfriend came to visit and took me to FISS, to dinner, to parties, to church, and bought me new shoes!). But, looking back on that birthday, I took away a valuable lesson.

There are times when I’m outlining, writing, or just living when I think of great characters. These characters are funny, daring, interesting, smart, beautiful, rich, elite. Of course, they must go in this story. Oh, I just have to befriend her. I invite them to my “literary” “writing parties.”  It’s very strategic. I know they will liven things up, open up old wounds for a character, push a character into doing something they really shouldn’t do, or provide the reader with a few good laughs. I just have to have them at my party.

Only, they don’t show up. Instead, I get the characters that I knew would be there, the family of the fiction world. I get the over protective aunts, the fashionable older aunt, the bad cousins. I get the people you have to prepare for by hiding your purse and putting away anything breakable. I get the people you never really invite but who always manage to find the party.

The thing is, though, in fiction and in life, the people who should be there, who need to be there, all show up. Maybe the popular girl at school didn’t show up, but my favorite uncle who always makes me laugh was there to cheer me up. Maybe the catty high school nemesis hasn’t yet shown up in my story, but the best friend who always has my MC’s back and gets them into (and out of) a fair share of scrapes was the first one to show up.

If you look through my social media, email accounts, and cell phone, the people I wanted at that party are largely conspicuous by their absence. When I look back on that party, on the way I eventually had a great time with the people who really are important, I don’t notice their absence at all.

The same thing goes for a good story. No ones going to miss a great character who doesn’t fit. Sometimes the characters we want don’t show up to the party. But everyone who needs to get there will get there eventually…even if they do show up late, drunk, and without a present. 😉

So, I’m encouraging myself to trust my writing and not force the wrong characters into my story. If it doesn’t fit, you must acquit. Let that character, and yourself, go free. He might just show up in another story. This is my birthday present to myself, the gift to be free of my own outlines and get lost in the story.

The Buried Life, Examined

I don’t know if it’s because of the introspection that turning a year older always induces in me, or because the ideas I’m working on for my memoir are causing my brain to divulge all of its secret treasures, but the past couple of weeks have been full of memories coming up that have me going “I completely forgot about that!”

I recently recalled my experiences with Tai Chi, a slight memory of golden apples on a ceiling that spawned a creative non-fiction piece “Creative Visualization.” Just today, I was twice reminded of other memories: one directly related to my memoir, and one of a grade school trip to the state capital. I’ve never had a problem remembering things, and I don’t know why it surprises me that the memories are still in there, somewhere, waiting to be knocked loose by an image or a thought so they can float to the surface. It’s just amazing how the cosmic shifts inside of me caused by my birthday have opened me up to such mundane memories. It’s equally amazing that these memories, upon reexamination, are so rich in meaning and appropriate for the projects I’m working on.

I’ve been sort of dreading this birthday more than most. I will be past the prime publication age I held so dear. I’ll never appear on a Top 40 aged 25 and under list of up and coming literary voices. The year that I was twenty-five will be recorded as one where there weren’t many triumphs. I don’t feel any closer to the goals I’ve had for myself or the things I’d always imagined I’d have by the time I’m 25-26: house, husband, heirs…, yet:

  • I’m writing at a higher level than before.
  • My blog(s) are developing a good following and inspiring discussion.
  • I’ve erased some of the old habits and debts that have kept me back.
  • I’m finally ready to seek publication again.
  • My writing voice is more fully developed than it was last year.

Since I’ve stop pushing back memories of my life, stopped thinking my life is uninteresting and uninspiring, I’ve come to see so many jewels of wisdom and insight. I’ve realized I have something to say, not just as a fiction writer, but as a non-fiction writer. I’m realizing I’ve accomplished a lot, much more than I give myself credit for, and I still have a lot of life left (hopefully) to accomplish over and exceeding everything I’ve ever imagined. I’ll get there in my own time, when the time is right. I just have to trust that I’m going to get there, and keep walking.