“. . . 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.