Memory is one of the writer’s most valuable resources.Using strong, vivid recollections full of detail and charged with genuine emotion will make your fiction, poetry or memoir-writing full of impact and, yes, memorable!
But what is the best way to access these memories in full Technicolor detail, some of which are a long way back in time?
I believe that the best technique for this is freewriting.
In freewriting (sometimes called flow writing, spontaneous writing or automatic writing) the instruction is to write without editing or critical judgement for a set length of time and to write continuously, without letting the pen leave the page or the fingers leave the keyboard.
Why use freewriting rather than a more deliberate, careful or even pre-planned type of writing?
Freewriting mimics the action of memory: it works by association.You might start out with the first time you met your partner but then you might skip back to a memory from school, say, or a piece of clothing you had when you were eight.
In freewriting, there is no wrong move and if you end up remembering nothing more glamorous than what you had for breakfast it doesn’t mean you’ve failed.It means that you’ve learned to trust the connections in your mind which are unique to you and the key to creating original writing.
So going to the page or screen with the set intent of re-capturing your wedding day or the house you grew up in are good starting points but the really interesting and off-beat memories (the time your mother had lipstick on her cheek at parent’s evening and you couldn’t bear to tell her) are more likely to emerge as if by accident.
The creative state is not a dogged trudge to a pre-planned destination (“I’ll start with me at age 5 and end with little Harry’s first tooth”) but a condition of openness, as described by Christopher Foster in his article on “moodling” in which the unhurried child absorbed in play is the ideal model of the writer at work.
Some Freewriting Exercises on Memory
While the method of freewriting should be loose and unstructured, you might do well to start with a prompt or a ready-made setting-off point.
Using the words “I remember” to begin your freewrite is one of the best and most fertile prompts.You write “I remember” at the start and as many times as you need to if think you are about to dry up.You do this for 10 minutes. It doesn’t matter if the memories are of twenty years or half an hour ago.
Another nice prompting method from Julia Cameron’s classic The Artist’s Way is to make 20 paper slips and on each one write a significant turning point in your life.Fold the slips so that the contents are hidden and then, when you decide to do a freewrite, pick one at random and write on it.You can do the same for people you’ve known. Write one person’s name on each slip and allocate one slip for each decade (or any other time period) of your life.Decide who was the most important person to you in each time-span, or the most mysterious person you encountered. A student of mine wrote an amazing story which began with a freewrite on “the strangest person I ever met” (it was about a tramp who had been a circus clown).
Another good type of prompt is to use places: a place I felt happy in, a place I got lost in, a place I belonged, etc.Again, slips drawn at random will work the best because you don’t want to rehearse anything: the freewriting needs to be raw and to simply record the thoughts as they emerge in the mind rather than recounting a pre-planned series of ideas.Ten minutes should be enough as long as you are sticking to the rules of freewriting.
How to turn freewriting straw into fictional gold
This brings us to the question of turning freewriting material into drafts and eventually publishable writing.No one should be under the illusion that freewriting is a shortcut to high quality, finished work: it’s just the start.After doing the freewriting, it needs ideally to be left alone like bread rising, and not re-read for as long as you can bear it.Leave it for days at least, weeks if possible and even years, if you have the patience and self-control. At that point you’ll see if there’s a story in it, or the kernel of a memoir or life-writing piece.
What you do next depends on the genre you are writing in.
If you are aiming to turn your memories into fiction, then change the facts as much as you like (in fact probably the more changes the better).Change the genders, the time period, the point of view (i.e. if the memory is from your childhood, try narrating it from one of your parent’s points of view).You can even change the outcome. A memory I had of being approached as a young girl by a rather odd man on a remote seaside cliff is going to change into a story about a girl disappearing, presumed dead.
If, on the other hand you are gathering memories for a non-fiction project, perhaps a memoir or creative-nonfiction essay (or indeed as an unpublished record for your family to read and keep) you’ll need not only to stick to the facts but to interrogate them for truthfulness.
Are memories “true” and does it matter?
There is some fascinating psychological research on “false” memories.At the extreme, these can be implanted memories that people come to believe actually happened to them.And there is a phenomenon called “confabulation” in patients with brain injuries which make their memories frequently fantastical but, to them, real.
Can we trust the memories that emerge in freewriting to be true?This begs the question of whether memories are true and reliable at all.Current understanding of the brain sees memory much less as an accessing of pre-existing information than as a construction after the fact.In other words, each time we re-access a memory, we recreate it. I often wonder if, by returning to write about certain moments in my life (my extreme happiness at becoming a mother is one) I have actually produced a fiction instead of a record of real events.Am I in fact implanting myself with false memories?
For me the benefits far outweigh these (possibly groundless) concerns.I treasure the description of these precious moments of my life and I know that if I wish, I can use these fully documented details to create the same feelings in my readers, whether or not they have experienced childbirth and motherhood.
Is freewriting safe?
I have never experienced any negative effects from freewriting about my memories.On the contrary I have found it wholly positive to record and thereby reclaim my past.I feel a great sense of wealth in simply having the good and bad moments of my life safely down on paper, so that whatever happens to me or them I have at least recorded my life as I have lived it.Neither have I seen any evidence that my students have had any bad effects from recalling their past, even when I set the deliberately sombre and risky prompt of writing about their first encounter with death.
But some people will have events in their past that are more difficult to deal with, such as trauma or abuse and if you suspect that these will emerge then put some support in place.
In general, though, I would advise going ahead with freewriting your memories however tough they are.If it’s fear that’s holding you back then I recommend reading Laura Tong’s call to arms and getting straight down to work because I believe that writing gives us power over, and ownership of, the events of our lives.
Go in search of memory
Why not clear a space and track down some memory gold right away?All you need is a pen and some paper and ten minutes to spare.
Dive right in and write about your most embarrassing moment or try to recapture what it was like to fall in love.
Somewhere down the line, this messy, haphazard and unselfconscious writing might give you the key to the project that brings out the best in you as a writer, and the force and strangeness of your unique experiences will be transmitted directly to your reader’s mind, brain and heart.