from memory to fiction

“. . . the act of imagination is bound up with memory.”

                                                         What Moves at the Margin, Toni Morrison

Memories make us who we are, dictate our actions, move us through the paths of our lives.

Toni Morrison talks about how the memory of a name inspired her to write Sula. It wasn’t the actual name that inspired the character, but the way her mother and the women around her said a particular woman’s name. “Hannah Peace.” It was how the women smiled knowingly as if the name itself carried the essence of this mysterious woman, who was considered something of a rebel. This led Ms. Morrison to think about women and their relationships, and her memories morphed into the creation of the character Sula.

As writers, we are manipulators of memory and time. Regardless of the genre, we want to give the reader an elevated experience with words, and we can’t be pedestrian about it. Nathan Bransford posted recently that writers interpret real life, elevate it, reorder events, and serve up something perfectly balanced and ready for public consumption.

So how do we achieve this reordering of events? By delving deep in our own memories and transmuting our experiences through our characters and their stories.

For me, I always see my protagonist first, and I make it a point to study him or her. When I first envisioned Lucian, I saw him on a busy street, talking to a child. He carried himself with an injured dignity, and I wondered what would make him so sad. On another day, I thought about my brother and a hurtful thing I’d said to him once when we were children. I thought about how I wished I could take those words back and make them disappear as if they’d never been spoken. I wished I could manipulate time and forever erase the hurt I’d seen in my brother’s eyes so long ago.

Then I wondered what would happen if someone had the power to take away another person’s hurt, anger, and pain, and make it as if those negative emotions had never existed. What would we learn about ourselves without adversity? And what if this powerful person, who could heal others of their grief, realized that always relieving another person’s anxiety doesn’t really heal her, but hurts her? So the original memory of the incident with my brother gave me my protagonist’s regret and slowly morphed into an entirely different scenario that I could use for my novel.

When writing, we often get hung up on trying to create the right memory through our seven senses, believing that if we can convey the taste, touch, or smell of an object, we connect with our reader. Ms. Morrison is telling us to dig deeper. Take an object (Ms. Morrison talks about how the memory of corn shaped scenes in Beloved) and decipher not just the texture or the taste, but the emotion that object arouses in you. Allow that memory to flow from one recollection to another.

Real life is messy, only in hindsight can we see how each event led to the end result. As writers, we have to reorder the events, delete the gaps in time, and make the experience as succinct and logical as possible for the reader to follow. We do this through point-of-view, pacing, and dialogue. We must strip the scenes of the pedantic and sharpen the dialogue until the core of the subject is easily seen. We must delve into the very quintessence of the emotion and draw forth its meaning like an elixir.

Then comes the hardest part: we must combine all these things in order to translate these feelings into an experience for our characters and for our readers with our stories. Don’t settle for the mundane, but elevate your prose as Nathan recommends, not by depending on catchy phrases or dynamic verbs, but by rooting through your memories for the emotion behind the event. Begin by digging within yourself for the real meaning and essence of a memory, then follow it home.

Therein lies your power — both as a person and as a writer.  

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About T. Frohock

Please visit my web site at: www.tfrohock.com
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16 Responses to from memory to fiction

  1. Kelly Bryson says:

    Beautiful thoughts. It takes a lot of mulling, doesn’t it? That’s the difference between someone who thinks “I could write a novel” and someone who actually does it. Distilling and filtering and distilling again. It’s more than words on a screen.

    People watch an acrobat, and they don’t think “I could do that” because they know how much work it is to touch their toes. But writing- we write with the same words to place an order for pizza as the ones used in the most sublime expression. It looks easy. Easy hasn’t been my experience, but it is wonderful.

  2. erikamarks says:

    As writers I think it is a constant challenge to write uniquely about the universal conditions/emotions we all experience at one point or another.

    Yes, each of us have unique life experiences which are our treasures and from which we draw upon repeatedly, as writers, as friends, as parents, etc–but as you’ve pointed out, to be strong writers we need to draw from a deeper place than just memory, and it is in that reach that we grow and excel as writers.

    Thanks for sharing these thoughts, Teresa.

    • Thanks for stopping in, Erika. Morrison’s book, What Moves at the Margin, just triggered so many wonderful thoughts for me. She is such a powerful writer, so it was extremely interesting to read how she constructed some of her characters and her scenes in the essay, “The Site of Memory.”

  3. Kelly, “distilling” really is the perfect word. It’s like molecules — the smallest portion of matter which contains the qualities of a larger, physical substance. Theme, voice, character motivation – all must be present on every page.

  4. tikiman1962 says:

    Your articles have always intrigues me, Teresa, because I seem to see another side of what you might be saying. The concept of memory in order to touch off the creation of a character or a scene is fascinating. But I have often wondered how well we can trust our memories.
    I have recalled people or events “out of the blue” with no obvious mechanism triggering the memory. Why? I have tried to recall something specifically for a writing project but could not connect on a personal level so I used another experience but not a personal one. Why couldn’t I connect?
    When I am able to recall it almost seems at times that I second-guess the memory in terms of its validitiy. Yes, it can still be used in the scene/character/chapter, etc. But upon personal reflection I might have to ask “Was that really me?”
    In any event, just this discussion opens new worlds of thought and, yes, further discussion.

    • Hi HB, I’m glad you liked the article. I can’t write well unless I can connect to my characters and their problems, so I have to make it a personal experience. Of course, this just works for me. I’m glad I was able to trigger some new thoughts for you. Thanks for stopping by!

  5. Teresa,
    What a wonderfully informative post! I have had similar experiences with my writing through the influence of my memories in a story. In my new novel, I took my sadness at my mother-n-law death last Christmas and translate it to my protagonist.
    Jen

  6. kat magendie says:

    Many times I don’t even realize/recognize I’ve written a memory until after I’ve written something, then going back later and read it and thought “this sounds familiar” and suddenly something will be remembered, but other times, my brother will read my stuff and say “Hey, something like this happened….remember?” and I don’t, but the Black Hole in my brain does -and provides it.

    Other times – like the Great Mocassin Incident in Tender Graces, is based on real events -my other brother would Snake Polo on his huffy bike with his friends…..lawd!

    • Hi Kat, sometimes I wish I could visit that black hole of yours. It’s always work for me to delve into the emotion of the story, but when I hit the mother-lode, it starts to work fine. Thanks for dropping by!

  7. amanda says:

    Hi, Teresa — I’ve been seeing your name around blogosphere, so thought I would come by. This was an interesting post. You’re so right, because our seven senses are never enought to bring a story and characters to life.

  8. lawrenceez says:

    Hi. Excellent article that I can relate to. I’m in the processing of sharpening my second novel and going deep into atmosphere and memory.

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