Shifting Memories

I doubt if any writer ever avoids using details from her personal life and experience. That oddball Latin teacher in ninth grade, the eccentric neighbor who collected birdbaths, the obnoxious boss with his mean-spirited sense of “humor”…such individuals lodge in the memory banks and can give birth to a fictional character forty years after the original has vanished into the past. The same process can use life’s twists and turns, furnishing everything from background material for a world to an amusing incident that serves as a bridge in chapter nine. But I never thought memory or past experience was as important as imagination when crafting a story.

Every once in a while, though, a writer finds herself channeling her own past in a more direct fashion. When that happens, there’s a sense of exposure. Even when no one knows the wellsprings of a given story or book, taking off the mask of privacy can feel like an intentional public strip-tease. That’s what I’m going to do now. Blog posts frequently function as a venting mechanism, or as a spelunking expedition into the deepest, darkest recesses of the Id. Keeping a journal or diaries is a well-known, if less public, route to self-analysis. I’ve heard people refer to writing fiction as therapy, but I always thought it a mistake to treat the Muse as a shrink. Fiction requires more than a dip into Memory’s pool.

Normally. But not always.

Some years back, in my forties, I discovered an aspect of my childhood that had been invisible to me at the time. Stating this here in a public place is difficult, but it shouldn’t be. It’s no shame, and it’s common enough. My father was an alcoholic. I just hadn’t realized it then, because he didn’t conform to the stereotypical 1950s images. When I accepted the fact, I wondered how I could have been so blind. So much suddenly slipped into place, stuff I hadn’t consciously thought about.

At some point, while I was still processing this fundamental modification of my personal world history, I used the analogy of a kaleidoscope to describe how all my memories had shifted. And all at once, I had a deeply personal story that I knew I had to write. Writing it hurt, and it healed. I’ve never been as dogmatically opposed to writing-as-therapy since this story blossomed from whatever subconscious mine exploits life’s raw materials.

It’s not accurate, of course. My father was still alive when I wrote it, although I called on the memory of Midwestern funerals for that scene. The mother in the story is nothing like my own delightful Mama, then or now. And I never had such a kaleidoscope, although I would have loved it. I still would love one like it, even without the magic. But the picnic at the lake was real, with my friend and I unable to keep our strokes even, causing the rowboat to spin slowly in place. The missed recitals, teacher conferences, spring shows, parties were a part of my childhood, as were the nights when he “worked late.”

It’s fiction. It’s not a true story. I just lived the essence of it.

So it’s possible we all use memory as raw material all the time. The kaleidoscope of words just shifts the pieces around.

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