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.

Seasonal Stories

How many of us have got through this month without giving much thought to story?  I’m not talking nativity here, I’m thinking about how much of our lives is lived as story.

As I ask the question I picture myself at the supermarket on Christmas Eve morning.  It is nine-thirty, and raining.  I am hurrying between parked and parking cars and dodging puddles and wondering if I might be able to find some extra stocking fillers as well as the groceries.

The white-tiled entry-way is mired with muddy footprints.  Like the rest of the crowd, I grab a trolley and rush in.  I’m following a route dictated by my list.  It corresponds to the specific needs of our household and budget and my knowledge of the store.

My general goal is to gather enough to feed us for the next two days (do we really eat so much?), though I’m hoping it might last to the end of the week. Like any good character, I am focused: in this case, on my list and the shelves.  My aim is to get to the till in the shortest possible time. Everything and everyone else is a distraction I don’t want.  My journey is continally hindered by people who run into me, or obscure my view, or dawdle when I am trying to hurry.

Above us, a medley of carols play, though it’s barely noticeable amongst the babble of voices. I’m a woman with a purpose, weaving a path between trolleys and, ‘excuse me, please,’ reaching past the ditherers.

What makes me stop in the midst of all this?  A space.  As I turn right at the end of the meat aisle I find an area of empty floor.  It is unexpectedly peaceful.  The fishmonger is not at the stall, and no one is chosing vacuum-packed sea-food from the end display.  I pause to check my list.  I am in the middle of an aisle, but no one passes. This place is bright, white and calm.

I don’t hurry on, I look about.  I’m intending to orientate myself to the changes at this end of the building, but instead I find myself starting to really notice things.  Like the plastic holly sprigs on the counters, the tinsel and baubles along the walls and the strings of shiny bunting suspended from the ceiling.  Then I realise I am humming along to Band Aid, “It’s Christmas Time”.

Sure, this can be read as commercial cliche, and I can wonder if the heart has gone out of it, but I’m still taking part, because I’m remembering the stories.  Not just the old ones, but the layers upon layers of newer ones, in poetry, history, story and song; and in the memories and observations that I am using to measure it all by.

Nothing stands still.  The fishmonger arrives with a smile.  ‘Sorry about that,’ she says, ‘Can I help you?’

Other customers drift into a queue. I am shopping again.  But that moment when I was overcome by a montage of other Christmases, real and imagined, allows me to see and hear other fragments of supermarket stories forming that morning amongst the trollies and baskets; jokes and arguments.