I’ll bet when Proust was dipping his pastries in his tea that morning the last thing he expected was his whole life to flash before his eyes.
Yet this goes to show just how many memories there are in each of us, a vast tidal wave of experience that could break at any time and flood back into our present consciousness. These memories – these stories – are what give us the power to write realistically and evocatively. The key is learning how to harness them.
All your troubles seemed so far away. And not just your troubles either. Memory is like that: how are you supposed to recapture events or conversations that now exist only in the murky depths of your mind? I don’t know about you, but my memory is hopeless. I find it hard to remember what I was doing last week, let alone last year (and unfortunately this has nothing to do with alcohol). But my memory, or more precisely my history, is the foundation of who I am. When Wordsworth said that the child was the father of the man, he was emphasising that the sum of your past experience, including your childhood, is what makes you uniquely you.
I compensate for my fuzzy mind by keeping diaries. They’re nothing special. Most entries are random observations from events or meetings rather than detailed accounts of treasured moments. These scraps of text only mention the odd scent, like Charlie Red on a date, or a tune, like ‘Abide With Me’ from a funeral. But I don’t need any more than that to remember the event. The senses are the key to unlocking your memories. How many times has a taste or smell dragged you back to a precise moment in your past, often so unexpectedly that you have to gasp for breath? Powerful fiction is based on thoughtful use of all of the senses and the emotional memories they evoke.
These sudden, immensely powerful flashbacks are an essential part of writing, and can be miracle cures for a text that is lacking in emotional or descriptive depth. Of course a piece of writing that only features your memories is autobiography, and won’t always interest a reader, but they will enable you to paint a much more vivid picture of your characters and their setting.
Your memories enable to you to construct an image that is unique to you, that resonates with your own history, even if ostensibly the plot you’re working on seems a million miles away. This attention to detail, this engagement with elements from your past, can be transplanted from your mind to that of your characters, creating a much stronger illusion of real people. Incorporating the memorable sights, smells, tastes, sounds and touches that mean so much to you will create a tangible atmosphere in your work, one that might feel like a real memory to everybody that reads it, as well as to you. Building memories into writing is a key to writing powerfully, it is why something that isn’t real can have the strength of something that is.
It’s always fascinating to look at what the mind remembers when asked to do so spontaneously. What about your five senses: which seems most important? Visual, most likely, but what other sensory reminders come into play? And how do you express your emotional experience of an event? Look for the strings of associations in your mind that help memories flood back to the present. When they do, make notes, capture the salient details, and allow your mind to follow along the path the memories lead: where were you, what were you doing, how were you feeling? Expand and write a little about yourself and the people you knew back then. What’s changed? These ‘oh yeah, I’d forgotten about that!’ moments are the details that can be inserted into your work to make it that much more convincing.
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Author: Luana Spinetti
I’m a freelance writer and a cartoonist based in Italy.