We remember what we want to remember and what we need to remember. Sometimes, out of self-protection, we forget details or entire events. Sometimes we can’t even remember what happened, only how we felt.
Memory is like a muscle. The more you use it, the stronger it gets. If you begin writing a memory, you will probably discover that you actually remember more than you thought you did. Or, if you return to the writing in a couple of days, what you’ve written will trigger even more detail.
Use your senses to help with memory; each sense will pull a few memories with it: a certain fragrance or odor, a certain slant of sunlight across the yard. Years ago, I was working at my piled-up editorial desk, stressed out and weary. I’d bought some plums to have with lunch. When I bit into the first plum and the skin burst and released juice and flavor into my mouth, suddenly I was in the sunlit yard of my grandmother, decades ago. What a delight, what a grace visited me that harried day, just because I tasted ripe plum. This is what our senses can do for us. So indulge your physical senses while you’re writing; give your body opportunity to find thoughts and memories that are tucked away.
Music and movement can also help you connect with the material that’s deeper in. Put on some music and dance, and notice where your emotions go, and notice what memories begin to surface.
Allow memory to be merely that: a specific record of how you experienced something. As I’ve said already, memory is not history, at least not in the strict factual sense. Memory reveals something about you. Why do you remember this specific remark that person made? Why do you experience this particular emotion when you think about the trip you made that spring?
I call this the “unfolding” exercise. First, you write a paragraph about anything that’s on your mind. Just write, don’t think too much.
Now, read that paragraph and identify the one sentence that speaks to you most. Write that sentence at the top of a fresh page—and then write a paragraph from that sentence. You’re using the one sentence as sort of a root for a new paragraph.
Do the same thing one more time: from this new paragraph, identify one sentence that speaks most powerfully, and use it to generate a new paragraph. What often happens in this exercise is that you get to deeper levels; you unfold the original thought. You can unpack a memory this way.
Describe a room that had great meaning for you when you were a young adult. Describe everything you can remember about it. Why was it so significant to you? What emotions do you feel when you remember it now? This strong association to place is important when we write. As we journal about such a place, it reminds us of how we can attend to our physical surroundings to nurture the interior life. As we write for other people—articles, blog posts, short stories, whatever—we can attend to the places and spaces our readers live in or must deal with. We can write for others so that they, themselves, have a sense of place while they are reading.
Finish these sentences:
- “The thing I wish I could forget is . . . and this is why.”
- “The parts of life hardest for me to remember are . . . and I think this is why.”
- “The memories I wish most people would hold on to are . . . and this is why I think that is so important.”
Holy Spirit, help me remember what will benefit my spiritual growth. Help me let go of memories that get in the way of that growth. Help me use my own memories as I consider how my written words can help others move forward.
I’ll be hosting a Tweetchat on Friday, October 4, at 12:00 CST. Use the hashtag #writethesoul to join in and discuss your experiences from this retreat week. Ask me any questions ahead of time here on the blog or @VinitaKS on Twitter.
I wrote the material this week especially for this online retreat—these are not book excerpts! However, if you find this material helpful and would like to pursue your writing further, you will probably enjoy my new book: The Art of Spiritual Writing: How to Craft Prose That Engages and Inspires Your Readers. Use code 4365 to purchase your copy for only $10 through 10/31/13. Shipping and handling are additional.