Notes on Writing Memoir – Dorothy

Memoir Workshop ***Dorothy
Writing memoir is said to have two elements- recollection and truth and both of these can present difficulties for us.
Many people say that they can’t remember much before the age of 20, 10, 5 or whatever, some go as far as to say that they have no memories going that far back at all. It’s almost as if they imagine that their memories are stored in a paper bag that can tear and things will fall out of.
But the remarkable thing is this- with a few notable exceptions, everything that has ever happened to you, every experience you have had, every emotion, is stored within you.

So if this is the case, why can we not readily access these memories?

Several reasons:

  • The way we store and rehearse memories
  • The way we prioritise relative importance of memories
  • The way we protect ourselves from threatening memories

And these are important to understand because in doing so we get clues about how to explore the vaults of our own recollections.

A popular analogy is that your memory is like a vast library and all of your memories are stored there: floor upon floor, aisle upon aisle, shelf upon shelf. Sounds encouraging, until you try to find something. Because these libraries are not usually very well organised. Most of us only stroll around the foyer, keeping everything we want ready access to on a couple of shelves there and only occasionally strolling through to the vast stores behind it. Many sections of the library are never visited, they become dark and dusty, so even if we do wander in to them now and again, we can’t really see what’s there.

Another way to think of your memory is like a big sack of items, placed in layer upon layer, the most recent ones at the top. But sometimes there are items that we examine frequently, and these stay near the top. These tend to be memories of particular importance to us, for either positive or negative reasons, and it is because we revisit them frequently that they remain accessible. But everything in the sack stays there, there is no hole at the bottom; we just tend not to delve.

What we are going to do this evening is start a bit of exploration. Some of these techniques will be familiar to you, but others less so. In the first round of activities, we are going to use the senses to try to trigger memory.
Just as we are reminded to use sensory description to bring our writing to life, so we can use sensory associations to work backwards into our personal archives…it is a two-way door.

Try to relax into these activities, try not to censor your thoughts; what can seem like an inconsequential detail can be the starting point to an interesting line of thought. One tiny memory can be the first thread that, if gently pulled, will unravel an entire memory.

Activity 1; Sensory Triggers

There is a significant difference between recall and recognition memory, that’s why prompts are useful.
They help us to recall things because they trigger ‘recognition memory’ rather than ‘recall memory’.
The former is easier to access, for example, if you are trying to remember someone’s name, it might just not come to you, but if someone says ‘it’s either David, Graham or George,’ you may well be able to select the correct one because you will recognise it.
Now, such prompts are fairly commonplace, every moment of our lives we are bombarded by an array of sensory stimuli. But we couldn’t be efficient in our lives if each one sent us off into some kind of reverie. So if we want to use them as prompts, we have to give ourselves permission to go there, give our normal cognitive sentinel leave (as happens in some phases of sleep or when under the influence of substances that alter consciousness). That is why it is better not to talk during these exercises, not to distract ourselves or others as this invites reason to take control again. The idea is to try to relax into whatever comes into your mind.

Each individual opens the first package, no comments, just consider, then write whatever comes to mind. Try to write until you are told time is up; ramble, follow an idea, stream of consciousness, let one notion lead you to another.
Do each item in same way, each is intended to stimulate one sense in particular.
(Preferred order: visual, tactile, taste, smell, auditory)

Activity 2:

Sensory triggers are familiar to most of us and are a valuable source of memoir nuggets. But possibly a richer source is that provided by emotional triggers. These are more difficult to engineer, not just because they are less concrete in nature, but also because we tend to be very protective of our emotional selves.
The ego seeks to protect itself from anything threatening and what we each decide is threatening depends on our own experiences.

Word of warning; this is potentially a rich seem, but it can also throw up things we are not ready to look at. So if you do find yourself on a path of recollection that you find painful, remember that you do not need to pursue it. You might make a mental note to yourself to have a look at that sometime, in a safe place, but it is usually better not to bring such situations to a group that is not geared up to dealing with them. So if you uncover something too difficult to handle tonight, then don’t.

Read over what you have noted so far.
Mark things that have come up that particularly interest you.
Select one
Think over Janice Galloway’s talk and her idea of there being a relationship between author and reader, like hands reaching out from text to grasp those of the reader.
Just as we aware of sincerity in people when we talk with them, so we are aware of truthfulness in their writing.

Frank McCourt also talks of preparing to write a memoir being like preparing to go to confession: bracing oneself for the truth!

Remember also what Alison Chisholm was saying about placing a memory within a context- what happened before it, what happened after it and what you were feeling about it…try to be truthful, even if only to yourself at this stage, it will enhance your writing, even if you decide not to share it with anyone.
The point here is that nothing that happens to you does so in isolation from the rest of you. Every time you feel sad, it calls in all your sadness; every time you feel delight, it is informed by all you experiences of delight etc. So it helps to open things up if you allow these rivers of experience to flow smoothly.
Select one of the recollections that have bubbled up within the context you have identified and try to sketch out a snippet of memoir, try not to censor.
Good Luck




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