As usual before a workshop, I pick up a coffee to take with me. And so it was that on a recent Sunday morning I drove the roundabout way to The Ink Spot to stop at Starbucks for my regular Americano. As I waited at the light, a young man crossed the street in front of me. Slender, wearing jeans and a long-sleeved blue pullover, he carried what could have been a journal, could have been a book.
All at once and as if coming from someplace outside me, I was taken back many, many years to a particular drive-in restaurant on a particular early summer evening when a young man, slender, wearing jeans and a long-sleeved sweater and carrying a journal approached my car.
This was my “madeleine moment,” a spontaneous and unbidden memory that came as complete and detailed as Proust’s, whose spoonful of tea-soaked cookie became Remembrance of Things Past. I was alive, back in time, a young girl going to night school, stopping for a coffee after class at a drive-in at the beach where carhops brought trays to your car. I was there, sitting in my Austin-Healy Sprite with the top-down, writing in my journal when the young man crossed the parking lot and stood beside my car. “Hi,” he said. “I’m Bill.”
Like Proust, from that sudden, involuntary memory, I experienced a deep and profound sensation of pleasure, and after that first blush of joy, a feeling of nostalgia that nearly brought tears. A whole, young summer of first love, image by image, came to me as if photographs projected onto my mind’s eye, complete with sensory details of the taste of the coffee, the nubby texture of the young man’s sweater, his blond hair, the scent of salty air from the nearby ocean.
Memories are sparked by sensory sensations. Whereas Proust’s involuntary memory came from that teaspoon taste of tea-soaked madeleine, my memory came via the sight of that slender young man with his journal. But whose memory hasn’t been awakened by the first few notes of a forgotten song? Or seduced by scent to a long ago event. Don’t have an idea for a story or stuck someplace in your current project? Write a page of “I remembers” using a sense for each memory. (“I remember hearing…” “I remember smelling…”) Use a different sense every day in a five-day writing assignment: page a day. Write from your own or your character’s POV.
On that recent Sunday, the young man passing in front of my car crossed the street and entered Starbucks. I parked and went in, too, and stood in line, three people behind him. And for the next half-hour continued to glance at him at his table several tables away from mine, as if I were taking another and another sip of cookie-laden tea, and scribbled details of images in my notebook. Even now, several days later, the remembrances continue, real and delicious, and I continue to make note of them, living again those times past.
What about you? Have you experienced a “madeleine moment” that sent you to your notebook?