Writing Memory: Did It Really Happen or Am I Making It Up?

I’ve started a new writing project, one based on a journey I took many years ago. It was a long journey: seven months, and a challenging one. I’d sold pretty much everything of value I owned—business, home, car—bought an around-the-world airline ticket and set off with little more than one suitcase and a  handful of plans. I still have the journals I kept of my travels, as well as packets of letters I received at various locations, a few photographs. But I’ve decided not to reread the journals as I’m writing, but to just let the memories and the images appear in daily writing sessions.

For example, one writing session I’m in a gypsy wagon at a Sensory Circus in a park at the green edge of Salzburg. I’m drinking tea and eating sweet bread with Marta. That may not really be her name, but that’s the name memory handed me. As I said, I’m all about trusting memory, knowing, as I do, what a trickster it is, taking images from an event and superimposing them on another and then sliding that one from underneath and stacking it on another—an Alice in Wonderland game of solitaire, all expansion and compression, juxtaposition and fantasy.

Une roulotte dans un parc
Sometimes it’s frustrating. I’m rolling along with a memory, when suddenly I can’t remember the name of a place I visited, or the week or month I was there. I can’t recall names of people I spent time with. So I leave a blank, or allow memory to make them up, as it did with Marta. I write a “Note to Self,” to look it up later and keep writing, willing myself to stay in the chair and not get up to “cheat” by riffling through the journals for the details. I know that once I allow the need for research to interfere with the flow of pen and memory, the story will be lost to the facts.

Sometimes letting memory take the lead is exhilarating. One morning I riffed for three pages on buying books at second-hand bookstores. (This was long before Kindles or i-anythings.) Those three pages won’t all make it from notebook to computer when the time comes to transfer them, but I discovered something new about myself, something that I wouldn’t have discovered if I didn’t just keep the pen moving. Another session, writing about a train ride between Salzburg and Budapest, I lost myself in memories of Sunday road trips in the backseat of our family Nash, Daddy teaching me nonsense songs and us singing together.

Memory is a forward/backward thing. A shape-shifting time-traveler made up of images and associations. I understand the moment an event or experience or an image is observed and clicked into place in memory, it is already fiction. It has taken a different form in that moment and it will take a different form again when I retrieve it, or when, as if by the striking of some sensory gong, it surfaces unbidden as did the three pages on used books. But I’ve decided, for so long as I want to continue to explore the effects and aftermath of that long-ago journey, I’m going to let memory have its way with me.

What’s your experience writing from memory?

“Because how we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives.”

That quote from Annie Dillard (The Writing Life) always resonates, but this morning especially as I write my morning pages. Between gazing out the window at the men on the roof of a neighbor’s house and watching the squirrel skitter along the fence rail, I list all the things I’d like to do today. Because it’s Thursday, they include:

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Journaling, Writing Practice, or Morning Pages. What the difference?

Journal Conference 2016 is a celebration of all things journal and I’m delighted to join conference organizer Kay Adams, who is celebrating thirty years as a pioneer in the field, and more than thirty other master teachers, authors, pioneers, and all-stars for the event. I’m presenting “Wild Voice, Wild Writing” in a couple of pre-conference workshops.

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