Is there anything new in the writer’s tool kit?

Memory is the way we keep telling ourselves our stories – and telling other people a somewhat different version of our stories.

Alice Munro

For the creative writer, the question, when thinking about using memory, is how far we are willing to deviate from truth.  Then again, what is truth?

One of my most shared personal anecdotes is a story that happened during my eighth summer. Out on the lawn, while playing rounders, there was an accident.

One of us ran forwards as another was raising their bat for a swing. I can see that moment in detail, I remember the blinding impact and the feel of blood dripping down my temple. I cried all the way to A & E, and those three stitches hurt.

facesYet years later, when I mentioned this to my brother, he frowned.  ‘No,’ he said.  ‘It was you who hit me.’  We both lifted our fringes to reveal a scar on our foreheads.

The problem, so far as accuracy is concerned, is that both of us were accident prone.  If I was using this episode for memoir, I could no doubt look up my medical records to check that I had made that visit.

For creative purposes though, this is a gift. Until that moment, the whole story was fixed.  I could have developed it into something more imaginative, but would probably have found it tricky to deviate far from the key scenes.

DSCF4818 - CopyOnce that doubt had been embedded I began to explore the picture from the position of perpetrator, and the boundaries dropped away. ‘What ifs?’ came into play.

It wasn’t just that I might write a version of events in the voice of my cousin, mother, doctor or even become omniscient, this doubt had allowed me to step right outside the memory. I could take one moment from that day, change the time, the space, the setting, add or remove characters, and see where that took me.

It would mean going back to those two pieces of historical advice for writers:

  • Write what you know
  • Write what you don’t know

…and combining them.  Which might just be what Alice Munro was saying in the first place.

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20 thoughts on “Is there anything new in the writer’s tool kit?

  1. Really useful! This blog post is a gem. I once wrote a poem about a memory I had of a canary coming into our garden and some neighbours saying they were trying to catch it, while instead escaping with a bag of our plums. My mum was really upset because she said she was still friends with those nieghbours and she didn’t want to offend them – I had used their real names. They had great names and it was with great reluctance that I accepted that the memory might not be true and that I had confused several things and that I shouldn’t use their real names. I realise now, that if I accept the memory as probably mixed up and untrue it becomes a much better conduit for fiction than before.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks Kate. The writing of memoir is certainly a minefield. But I love using memory fragments in fiction, it often draws out some vigorous and vivid writing. I hope you did adapt the names, rather than shelve the poem. It sounds like a situation with a lot of story potential.

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  2. YES. Excellent post, and truth about those wretched bats! I went to the dentist some years ago–motherhood had set in, but I don’t think the boys were more than babes. My upper gum had a spot where it was receding. “Did you suffer an injury here?” the dentist asked. “This sort of thing happens when you get hit in the face.” Nah, that never happened. And of course when I mention this to mom in the midst of gathering up the kids, SHE says, “Of course, the softball game down in ___. You were in sixth grade, I think, and you were getting ready to bat, and the girl at the plate through the bat to run and it got you right in the mouth.”
    I have absolutely no memory of this, BUT after my mom telling me I can IMAGINE the memory.

    You’re on point, is my point. 🙂 xxxxxxxxxx

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    • Wow, another sporting accident? I seem to have found a more common seam of experience than I’d assumed. I don’t know why this surprises me, given the physicality of hockey and rounders.

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  3. This is an excellent and thought-provoking post, Cath. I have lists of childhood memories I’ve never used but your idea that memory can be unreliable has inspired me to go back to them and sift them for what I know and what I don’t know. In fact, a good way to keep your post in sight is to reblog it – which I’ll do!

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  4. Pingback: Best fiction and writing blogs | M.C. Tuggle, Writer

  5. I’ve had similar experiences with my younger brothers. Not only did we remember the details of a certain incident differently, but we each remembered a detail that the other hadn’t recalled. I’ve noticed recently that memoirists are bringing this more to the forefront, saying: “this is how I remember it,” or “although my sister believes it happened in the backyard, I’m sure we were in the basement.”

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    • Yes, it pays to write safely when doing memoir, particularly if it was an event that generates strong feelings. I think it’s better to record events this way than to avoid describing something because you know you disagree over details. Memoir is such a useful way to pass along a little of yourself for future generations.

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    • It comes from having a slightly unreliable hook into my own past, I think… Either that or too much reading. No, can’t be such a thing as too much reading, surely?

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