Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Slow Down, Seed Memoir, with Memory Triggers

Yesterday, a local chapter of the American Association of University Women held a luncheon about memoir and asked me to speak on writing about personal experiences. Despite the snowy slush, rain and cold, 28 women filled the room with energy. They asked the greatest questions, and dug in to write moving, lovely, and unexpected responses to the two writing exercises.

We spent a while discussing how writers decide what to write about and how much of that decision is intention and how much seems to be out of the writer's hand; how often writers simply follow where instincts or (seemingly) random ideas help move memories from our minds and hearts onto the page. Sometimes we just see or hear or encounter something -- what I call a "memory trigger" -- and BAM, the next thing you know, we're writing about this or that.

I talked about how I've noticed that, by slowing down in my daily life, I’ve been better able to recognize and respond to these memory triggers -- sights, sounds, objects and so many other things which we encounter daily and which have the potential to help unlock memories IF we are not too distracted to notice. Or, when we do notice something, we don't allow ourselves to linger long enough to notice how it's affecting us.

Last week, for example, the receptionist at my dentist's office was wearing a blouse which reminded me of one I selected during the wardrobe shopping spree my mother took me on before starting my first real job in 1982…which made me wistful for shopping with Mom, who lives 2,700 miles away…and it also got me thinking about how working 80 hours a week permanently changed the way I thought about career…which also brought up how much I miss working in Manhattan, which led to...well, you see where I’m going. Sometimes I don't feel any energy behind these memory triggers and so I let them go. But other times, as it did last week, they don't feel so much like stray thoughts as an urgent mandate, or an itch which, if I don't scratch it, will certainly drive me right over the edge.

A memory trigger can set off a torrent of thoughts which may (or may not) lead to a future piece of writing. However, we often stop there and don't take the time to translate that memory scrap into some form we might use in our writing. As for me, forget about waiting until I get back home to do something about it – by then, I'd be far too distracted by, well, anything – the Novocain wearing off, the size of the dental bill, whether there's anything soft in the house to eat for dinner, all the emails which arrived while I was out.…

Of course, the best thing would have been to sit right down in the waiting room and write, but I knew I'd be called in too soon for that. So what I did instead was to make a quick list of all of thoughts, using the small notebook I carry in my purse. At the memoir writing talk yesterday, we brainstormed other options -- I could have tapped out a text to myself; stepped into the hall to call home and leave a voice mail for myself; draw a picture of the blouse in my small notebook. I could have written a quick note to myself and then after the dentist, spent some time in my car or the coffee shop across the street, writing out some thoughts before heading home. What the heck, the emails can wait and the numbness will wear off just as slowly whether I'm sipping my tea at home or at the coffee shop.

The thing is, had I been rushing to get the dental receptionist check-in process over quickly so I could sit down and text my friend, or watch the too-loud banal talk show on the waiting room television, I might not have even noticed the blouse. Slowing down means the memory triggers have a chance to catch my attention. I have no idea of course if any of what I jotted down will find its way into a piece of writing. Eighty percent of it probably won't. But then again, I probably only use about 20 percent of anything I generate in the very early brainstorming / brain dump / rough draft stage either.

Sometimes, instead of noticing when a memory trigger comes our way, we instead need to go in search of a memory trigger to help pry loose a memory we're having trouble accessing. Tomorrow, I'm going to post an extensive list of the places, objects, and situations which make excellent memory triggers.

Meanwhile, slow down today and see what crosses your path.


Lisa Allen said...

Such a great reminder to slow down, Lisa. Seems ironic that it is a discipline that we must practice until it becomes habit, but that's the truth of it. What with the pace of daily life today. Thanks for this. Bet your writing ladies had a wonderful, inspired time, too.

Jesaka Long said...

What a fantastic post, Lisa! I started carrying a notebook around during a personal essay class and I was amazed by the memory triggers I captured. Simply by being more aware, I opened myself up to great memories I'd seemingly forgotten. What I love most about your post is the reminder to *do* something with those jotted down thoughts. It doesn't do much good if the inspiration never leaves the pages of that notebook.

Jenne' R. Andrews said...

Hi Lisa: I post flash memoir/vignettes at and am writing a memoir thirty-seven years in the percolating about a trip I took to Europe. I loved what you have to say.

I have a question: I've caught wind of the controversy over fictionalizing memoir. I have carried on on the assumption that of course we cannot remember with exactitude all conversations that take place around a particular memory; we must use our wit, imagination and narrative capabilities to "fill in". I would love to hear your take on that. I find that the process you describe of one memory cascading to another yields many details but not all. For example, in the book I'm writing, much occurs within conversations with two other women and in our spoken reactions and responses to events. You see my dilemma. I don't want to turn this into a work of fiction and am nearly to the point where the two women drop out of the story and I am alone with things I remember much more clearly and vividly.

I'm also trying to develop the story and keep it to the pace of a draft chapter a day. As a poet, this is a challenge, as poems come quickly and I work on them in the aftermath. Thanks for any and all help! Jenne' Andrews

Susan Bearman said...

I think I get caught up with the overwhelming thought of writing a Memoir — capital M — book length. I forget sometimes that these triggers can add salient details to short pieces of nonfiction, as well as to spice up my fiction writing. Thanks for the reminder.