One of my favorite book titles is that of Vladimir Nabokov’s autobiographical memoir Speak, Memory. As both directive and decree, memory speaks, and it’s one of the most powerful muscles for narrative pull in all of literature.
In the same way that an olfactory experience evokes recollection, memory stimulates story. A turkey basting in the oven, coffee brewing over a campfire, an evergreen bough warmed by sunlight … These olfactory recollections may evoke the holidays or hiking in the woods or family gatherings or images of good times gone bad. No matter what remembrances they call to mind, the memories that accompany the sense recollections are powerful links to the past that open doors to discovery, and the journey of discovery can generate enough wattage to propel a story, whether real or imagined and perhaps a bit of both.
For me, November is a month filled with memories, not all of them pleasant. In this month, my father died, my mother and I moved from a home we shared for over 40 years, other family passed away … It’s a tough time of year, and although autumn is my favorite season, November is a prelude to winter, and I don’t relish the cold as much as I used to.
In writing, memory, even when unpleasant, can function in a variety of ways. It can spark a scene, provide a flashback, reveal a character or personality, propel the story, reinforce conflict, force clarity, reveal pain, provide pleasure or comfort, offer a moment of rest, create context by providing history, create a link to the past and to people who aren’t around anymore. Memory, whether manufactured on behalf of a fictional character or remembered from real life experience, can do all these things and more, long as we’re paying attention.
In real life, one interesting quality of memory is that the body often realizes before the mind that something is happening under the surface. Something is up, and that something often is a memory, a thing remembered or a thing that wants to be recalled, often so that it can be explored and dealt with. In writing as an aspect of healing, one reason to write is to explore the memory for precisely these reasons, but we can’t do that if we don’t acknowledge the recollection or don’t allow our characters to do so. Once we do, we must spend time with these people, our characters, others and ourselves.
One caveat: Don’t be surprised if the deeper the memory, the more emotions arise, strong emotions that may yield other memories and other emotions, often of a painful experience. Yet, exploration yields discovery, and discovery can bring a sense of peace, closure, that aha moment that allows us to realize something we didn’t know before and enables us to move on from there.
The same is true for us as writers and for those we write about. The key is taking time to explore the memory and ask questions of it. What does it look like? Where is it happening and when? What is happening? Who is part of this memory, and why are they there? Why is it important? What might we learn from it? What does the memory want to tell us?
As a month of anniversaries, November is a difficult month. But it’s also a month of transition, of barren trees whose branches scrape the bright sky, of smoke curling from chimneys, and footprints on snow-dusted doorsteps. I may not always want to hear what my memory wants to tell me, but I generally find myself better off for having listened.