In September I’ll be teaching a writing from memory class at The Older People’s Festival in Brighton. I decided to use memory a basis for a creative writing class because it plays a big part in my creative process. A lot of my ideas come from the surfacing of long forgotten memories. The novel I’m writing at the moment evolved from the memory of a diner in the California desert that I stayed in in 1995. I don’t know why I suddenly remembered, a TV show maybe or my kids asking me about where I’d been in the States. Whatever it was it all came flooding back. When I remember things suddenly like this the memory is very vivid, I not only see it but I feel it, hear it and smell it. The memory of the diner brought with it the scorching heat of the sun, the layer of dust on my skin, the way the sky looked at dawn and the taste of the beer with a lime wedge after a hard day exploring Death Valley. I have been blessed with strong olfactory memory too, I know what the bar smelled like and the oasis, the sun on the car interior, sun cream mixed with the perfume I wore back then (LouLou). It’s the whole package and it has been very useful to me as a writer.
I’m sure that it’s something that can be developed. People often say they don’t remember things well but if you break things down into their constituent parts it makes it easier to create a whole multi-sensory experience. I help out at an annual enrichment week at my local 6th form college, one of the exercises we do is to hand out old fashioned pick and mix sweets and ask the students to eat one and think about all the sensory qualities, taste, smell, texture, to eat the sweet slowly and silently and then to write down everything they have experienced eating it. They are then asked to write a short piece based on the sweet. More often than not the writing uses childhood memories, thoughts of grandparents, of being kids in the school playground, summer holidays, Christmas stockings and from these specifics come empathetic fictions because characters are developed that share the root experience of eating the sweet. Try it, you’ll be amazed what comes to you.
You can do something similar with songs. I sometimes get asked about music that has influenced my writing. I use music a lot when I’m writing, I’ll obsessively play songs over and over to really get the feel of them in my words particularly if they offer insight into a character at a specific moment in their journey. Where I might differ from the way others use music is that I like to listen (and watch) on Youtube. For me experiencing it this way means I get to see as well as here and this means I can fully experience the music with the character. As an example in 15 Minutes there is a story about a teenager seeing David Bowie on Top of the Pops for the first time in 1972. I watched that video over and over, noting everything I could about the sights and sounds of it, the way Bowie looked and sounded, the way it was filmed, the lighting in the studio. I was a child in 1972 but my sister loved Bowie and I remember TOTP being like that. Experiencing the song this way brought a whole new layer to it one that plays extremely well with people who experienced it at the time.
My lovely Irish Aunt Anna died on Monday, just a few months after my mother. She was a great age and was a very cheerful and happy person. I wanted to remember her in this way so I dug out some old photographs and looked through them with my son. They were taken in 2009 when we had taken Mum to Donegal to meet up with my aunt and her brother. The photographs were on a disc and, in this age of digital immediacy, we probably hadn’t looked at them since they were taken. My son was seven at the time, he hadn’t thought about that holiday for years but looking at the photographs he could remember it really strongly. He remembered the vast and deserted beach and the terrifying experience of being chased by cows, the walk from the house to the shore and his little brother toddling around getting into mischief. It’s amazing how much he did remember from a couple of photos. Again a fully sensory set of memories came to me. I remembered the house we rented as if it was this summer, I remembered the buffeting winds on the coast and the smell of salt in the air, that I went for a long walk on my own, because I could walk then without crutches and because being the mother of two lively boys meant I needed a couple of solitary hours in the quiet almost meditative atmosphere of the Donegal coast. I remember my 20 year old niece welling up because the really very good chocolate cake (as described on the menu) we had in a restaurant on out last night would not be bettered in her lifetime. I could use any one of these memories in a creative piece, long or short, because they are suddenly so clear in my mind, each one triggering another. I’ve been writing notes about it to use at a later date, making sure to get down every detail. Like my recollections of the California desert I may not use them for years. I’m pretty sure that when I do return to them it will be for something completely unrelated to family history but the characters that will come out of them will be all the more believable for emerging from real life experiences.