How to Hone in on Memory When Writing Memoir
—by Lila Quintero Weaver
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Note: This artice is about memory and memory retrieval in writing memoir. I hope you find it useful
“Memory is the thing with feathers”—Quintero Weaver
Quintero Weaver begins with a takeoff on one of my favorite Emily Dickinson poems “Hope is the thing with feathers, That perches in the soul,” etc., and then expands on that metaphor beautifully, changing one word of the first line in order to give us a wonderful take on her method of memory retrieval.
Here are a few pertinent excerpts from what Weaver wrote on the subject, broken down into bite-size pieces:
Memory and Memory Retrieval in Writing Memoir
- “Retrieving memories is akin to feeding wild birds. I stumbled on this association while working on my memoir.
- “The problem with reconstructing the past is memory’s ephemeral nature, and the material for Darkroom (her memoir about being a Latina in Alabama) had lain dormant for fifty years…
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Methods for Memory Retrieval
- “I began writing those memories within my grasp, no matter how spare and murky, all the while enhancing them through research. As a result of sustained attention, deeply buried memories started to resurface, often when my mind was on other things.
- “I learned to keep a notepad handy. Once the phenomenon of retrieved memories kicked in, a metaphor helped me accelerate the process: bird-feeding.
“The birdfeeder my husband built in our home basement will never make it to the pages of Better Homes & Gardens. It’s a 7-foot steel-rod post topped with a rectangular platform. There’s no roof. A wire-mesh inset keeps the birdseed from getting soggy.
“For two weeks after he installed it, the feeder was a lonely sight. But then birds started coming, and I spent enchanted hours watching from my dining-room window, careful not to spook them by standing too close…Why had I never seen them? The more I trained my eyes on the birdfeeder, the more astonished I was by the variety of species that passed through our backyard or even called it home. The feeder had lured them out of their hiding places.
A Unique Approach to Memory Retrieval
- “Associating memory retrieval with the feeding of wild birds helped me adopt a patient, soft-focus approach, as if taking care not to spook memories darting nearby…
- As I continued writing, long-forgotten episodes drifted in with little additional effort on my part. Before I knew it, I’d recovered smaller, but powerful stories.”
I loved this metaphor because it so purely captures the way in which I wrote my latest memoir, Sir, I’m Not That Kind of Girl.
As most of you know, when I wrote Accidental Cowgirl, I had years of journals to reread so that I could remember the most exciting and interesting things that happened during my twelve years as a cowgirl.
However, in writing Sir! (as it has come to be known), I had no such crutch. Because of my age (80 in October) and the condition of my hands, I haven’t been able to keep a regular journal, and gripping a pen for longer than it takes to write a check is out of the question.
Besides that, rather than talking about the somewhat recent past as I did in Cowgirl, I was now writing about my childhood and my life as a young adult. And my memory about my coming-of-age was spotty, at best. So I started writing whatever memories I still had in my grasp, “no matter how spare and murky,” as Weaver did, and went on from there, researching where I needed to about times and places that were no longer clear to me, trying “not to spook them by standing too close” as it were, and I was rewarded with a flood of theretofore unremembered scenes and happenings.
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The Persistence of Memory
How to use memory and memory retrieval methods in writing your own memoirs
- Once you are “in flow,” more and more memories flood in, especially when you’re relaxed and thinking about other things. It works for me. It can work for you. Sidle up to those birds (your memories) and don’t scare them away.
- Keep that notepad handy, and feed those flighty birds!
Most of all, remember this quote by Marion Roach Smith”Learning to write begins with reading.” This is true whether you are writing memoir or anything else.