How Memory Can Help Your Writing

I distinctly remember, around the age of twenty, vowing that I wouldn’t be one of those people who stopped going clubbing. All of this nonsense about it being too loud, or too late, or too expensive, was something you would never hear from my mouth. I loved going out and drinking and dancing every week. Even an University it was important, but by the time I got into regular working hours it became imperative, a lifeline at the end of the working week. Fast forward many years, and I can’t honestly remember the last time I went to one. Maybe a late-night venue that plays music you can dance to, but nothing that anyone would classify as a ‘club.’ My tastes have changed, my social life has changed, my idea of a good night has changed. Yet I remember those nights as brilliant. Leaping around dance floors full of energy, embracing my wonderful friends and generally enjoying every moment. When I stop and think about it, there were many occasions when the music didn’t live up to expectations, we got stuck queuing outside in the cold and wet for ages, someone lost a wallet, drinks were spilled, people were annoying. Yet a brief glimpse only gives me this chunk, this fraction. I think part of writing is pulling apart those little nuggets and searching for the truer stories underneath them.

Is Memory Reliable?

With this reflection, it makes me think about all the other things that get slightly warped through the lens of time. Childhood seems to have far too many warm summers and snowy winters. Being in Year 9 was a murky swamp of misery, beset with emotional arguments and loyalties. While it’s clear that relying on childhood memory too much is a tricky thing, it’s worth remembering that there is an absolute wealth of untapped resources for your writing, just waiting beyond that fleeting thought about the My Little Pony dream castle you got when you were 7 (it had a little purple dragon called Spike and a working drawbridge. Amazing).

Having just read Cat’s Eye, by Margaret Atwood, she reminded me of some rather unpleasant memories about bullying that I’d shelved away somewhere. Reading that book triggered things I’d decided not to think about. At some point, the main character goes through a kind of amnesia, where she has unsettling thoughts, but isn’t entirely sure why. Her childhood brain has neatly locked away her systematic torture at the hands of a group of girls, and hidden it from sight.

Reading it was a revelation. I suddenly remembered spending entire break and lunchtimes hiding in the toilets, terrified that they would find me. Being backed against a wall, a group of people taunting me. The awful situation that meant I had to share a 40-minute car journey with my bullies every day, pretending to the adults that everything was fine. It was the first time I cut off all my hair, wanted to change it, change my clothes, change anything that would mean they would accept me, or at least stop noticing me and leave me alone.

Using Memory in Writing

Atwood tapped into an awful memory that many people share. Which is the brilliance of great writers. So why can’t we do it too? The next time you are searching for a brilliant idea for a story, rather than looking outside yourself, or imagining something fantastical and different, try starting a little closer to home. I’m not suggesting that you do some sort of psychiatric delving into dark memories, but the things that happen in childhood, invariably happen to all of us. You don’t need to take the memory and tell it truthfully, but rather use those emotions to construct a story based around the same idea. Finding something truly universal that will resonate with your readers is the goal here, not writing a personal essay. Try it out, did it work for you? Let me know in the comments.

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I'm a writer, teacher and drummer based in London. Short fiction and reviews are my main staples, along with some dabbling in novel writing.

2 thoughts on “How Memory Can Help Your Writing

  1. I’ve started delving into my Sicilian childhood memories and writing stories set in Sicily. Just as you say, ‘You don’t need to take the memory and tell it truthfully, but rather use those emotions to construct a story based around the same idea’, it happened to me that, when I visited Sicily again, I found that it didn’t quite match the one that lives in my memories. And now in my stories 🙂

    1. It’s great that you’ve found this to be the case as well. Sometimes I think I don’t want to go back to some places I have memories of, just in case they don’t live up to my expectations!

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