On A Few Useful Memories

By Anne K. Kaler, PhD

“Writers waste lots of paper but few useful memories.”

Is that a provocative sentence for a writer? Tony Hillerman uses it to end a paragraph describing how he uses a memory of an actual helicopter ride deep into a canyon as a major action in his mystery Hunting Badger.

Anne Kaler Head Shot
Anne Kaler

If a novelist as skilled as Hillerman can use his memory, why can’t we as writers use our memories – good and bad alike – to flesh out our fictions? Well, we can and we do.  Pearl Buck herself employed familiar touches in her writings to enhance the scenes.  Her children have even recognized several of them and treasured them.

In a way, we as writers inhabit many worlds, some of which are real. One of those worlds lies in our memory bank, just waiting to be withdrawn and put to use in another of our worlds, that of our writing. Of course, once the memory is withdrawn and staring us in the face, it must be transformed to fit the place it will be deposited into our story. That means that we have to revisit just how the memory affected us then and how it affects us now.

Often times the memory might be too painful to deal with so we discard it and lock it back in its compartment in our brain like a rabid animal in a cage. Other times, the memory might be too private to be revealed like an animal in a zoo cage. Or it might injure another person or provoke a disagreement. Or it might not fit that spot for which it was intended as nicely as we had hoped.

How then do we handle our memory bank withdrawals to fit into our writings?  Deception, my fellow writers, deception and a ruthless red editing pen. Pull the memory into your consciousness and look at it hard. Relive the moment, seek out the feelings that you once experienced, keep or reject those feelings, and judge how you can alter the memory to your new need. As you dig up emotions, notice how your senses can recall what they registered at the time. Use those sense descriptions to make your new scene stronger.

At this point, also notice how our memories have been aged and softened  (or hardened) with the experiences of our passing years. This is where the red-pen editing takes place. We don’t have to use every aspect of the memory so we can freely prune, add, or intensify selective aspects of the memory to suit our needs.

Say that we have the memory of a person — the image of Queen Elizabeth – comes to mind. She is many things to many people but her attire can provide a telling characteristic — matching long coat and dress, gloves, hat, purse, — all in the same bright color and the pearls, of course, the eternal pearls. Now, if we want to show a woman of dignity, perhaps slightly obsessive, perhaps super-traditional, perhaps a symbol of wealth, we could use the queen’s outfits as a sign of our character’s sense of self. (I doubt that the queen would mind or ever hear of our character so I don’t think that we have to consider being sued.)

In a political book, Hillerman admits to not naming the state and disguising the city so that his “newsroom friends wouldn’t be finding themselves among the characters.” (330) This need to disguise the characteristics of people whom we know is an ongoing problem for writers. However, no matter how clever you are in turning a nosy old mother-in-law into an inquisitive teenage boy, some people will claim that you have put them into your story. Sigh! That is a hazard of writing, unpleasant but possible. So do your best to keep such accusations to a minimum.

Hillerman’s quote cited above is followed by this one. “Now was the time to tap a 15-year accumulation of those memories to write the important book.” For another example for a setting for a murder, Hillerman uses his memory of a state capital building with a ”four-story drop from a balcony to a marble floor, slow and creaky elevators, and spooky echoing silence after working works.” Notice all the sense-words he uses here. He continues with the theme of our blog: “Sure, you can invent such details but why make your imagination work when you can remember them.” (330)

So, fellow writers, use those memories judiciously. After all they are “free money” drawn from years of experiences and ready to be retold in our stories. Keep writing.

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