Sunday, April 14, 2013

Idea Garage Sale: Memory Lane

So, yesterday the author sessions I attended at the Texas Book Festival both dealt at some level with memory. Guadalupe Garcia McCall talked about how she wrote the poem that eventually burgeoned into Under the Mesquite, showing her class of skeptical 13-year olds (I think it was 13-year olds) how easy it is to get a subject for a poem. First, she tapped a memory - the first one that came to mind, since she was under the gun - and then when she had it she had them time her and, just as they'd dared her, she wrote a poem in under five minutes. And then eventually she had to go deeper and deeper and deeper into memory, to places she didn't want to go, in order to write the book, which also finally enabled her to come to terms with her mother's death.

In the session on "Sense of Birthplace," Beatriz de la Garza was talking about how a trunk of family papers was her way in to the history of the Republic of the Rio Grande, and Sarah Cortez was wildly enthusiastic about memoir and how we use it to understand one another across our various identity boundaries.

Now, this is something I don't do. Okay, sure, I tap my memory all the time because in the end, what else do any of us have? But I've got personal memory and reading memory and listening memory all jumbled up. Everything goes into the pot and flavors everything else. I don't draw directly on my own particular memories until I need them in service to a story because I do not find myself interesting.

(It couldn't possibly be because there's things in my memory I don't want to think about and places I never want to go again. Nope, nope, nope. Not me. And anyway, when I need to go there to retrieve stuff for a story I'm already working on, I can do it, but going there to get a story? I'm not that desperate, thanks. The back door's my chosen route.)

And though I can pass on advice about using your own memory as a story source, it's not a suitable topic for a garage sale because it's not specific enough. Sure, I could give you a story seed based on one of my memories, but the whole strength of the technique is based on each of us going down our own personal memory lanes to retrieve our own strongest emotions.

Memory Lane. Now, that's an image. It's long (and gets longer as we age), and parts of it are very dark indeed but parts are all bright and sunny and we'd like to get to them. If we could do it without going through the dark parts.

What if you put a person onto her own memory lane for a story? Send her down a physical path that she gradually realizes is her own life?

Hm. That's not generating anything all by itself. You have to create the character before you can create the memory lane, and either trick her onto it or create a crisis that forces her down it, in order to have enough structure for a story. Because of course memory isn't structured at all. It isn't even chronological. When you go down memory lane, you carom from memory to memory, from last year to high school to college to junior high to your first time in a wading pool by association. Even if it's a magic realist story, you need more structure than that.

And I don't know about you, but I prefer stories with multiple characters. The opportunities for dynamic interaction with the people in your memory are limited. Maybe you can understand your mother, or your bully, or your ex, now with the benefit of hindsight, but you can't communicate that understanding to your previous self and you can't change your past behavior toward them any more than you can change their behavior toward you.

So what if you're going down somebody else's memory lane? And can interact with her fruitfully while there?

What if a child, or grandchild, or a caregiver (who became a caregiver because she had this talent) has to go down the memory lane of someone with a memory malfunctioning due to age and/or illness? What if someone you love is lost in a maze of memories and you go in after her, to take her by the hand and lead her back to the present?

Can you face what you'd learn about her, doing this? Can you face what you'd learn about yourself?

And how do you avoid making this a silly fantasy about using your magic talent to cure Alzheimer's or something sentimental like that?

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