Lesson No. 1: Memory as Muse

Here is a beautiful song by singer/songwriter Iris Dement written after her father died.


“Fireflies inside of a mason jar.

Acting big behind the wheel of daddy’s car.

Playing church around the old piano stand,

You were quite a preacher and oh, we sang so grand.

I remember every night what we would say and do:

“If you’ve forgiven me, then I’ve forgiven you.”

And now when life begins to get the best of me,

I reminisce these childhood memories.”

Iris Dement


Reading Assignment

An interesting article that discusses how we process our lives in terms of story.


Why do certain memories remain so clear to us while others seem to fade away quickly? Memories that are vivid include details, which make the situation unique or they are connected to a significant life transition or they are connected to a personal obsession.

For example-one Christmas I received what my father called “The last doll” which was funny because I’d never had my own doll. I liked stuffed animals and otherwise everything was a hand-me-down. This doll was uniquely beautiful, Swedish and looked like I longed to look, blonde and tan. Finally, my father’s attention was so rare and so precious. I remember every detail of that doll and that moment.

Choose a vivid memory (yours or someone else’s) and write it down exactly as you remember. Then go back and revise for story. Add dialogue, details, an event.

When you transform ‘real life’ into story you should be ruthless about leaving out the boring bits and enhancing the details. You edit “actual” dialogue to compress and deepen conflict. You might combine several conversations into one. The important decision is to feel free to use the memory or the dream to help you strengthen the elements of your story.

“Memory (the deliberate act of remembering) is a form of willed creation. It is not an effort to find out the way it really was – that is research. The point is to dwell on the way it appeared and why it appeared in that particular way. “

Toni Morrison, “Memory, Creation, and Writing”; published in “Thought”, 1984, New York

What do you risk in using memories of something that actually occurred? I learned first hand how brutal feedback can be when I was in the Brooklyn College MFA program and I reacted to a piece of writing by describing the narrator as a “total pig”. My classmate seemed to both shrink and expand when I said this and during my next private tutorial I was informed he had dropped the program. “It’s a mark of an immature reader,” my teacher said, “to confuse the narrator with the author.” I beamed. “But,” he said, “Someone called him a pig.” That someone was I. I felt bad but I also felt he shouldn’t have expected his readers to love that character just because it was real. Still, one must proceed with kindness and if it’s a fiction workshop, never, ever ask, “Did this really happen?” Never.

“The writer tries to develop the moment of truth with the magic of the imagination.” Elizabeth Jolley.”


Discussion Assignment

“And when the stream Which overflowed the soul was passed away, A consciousness remained that it had left deposited upon the silent shore of memory images and precious thoughts That shall not die, and cannot be destroyed.” According to Wordsworth we experience the present through the shadows of the past and our impressions of the past are filtered through our present consciousness. As a writer, how do you use the past to enrich and deepen the present?


Writing Assignment | THE SENSE MEMORY

Your first assignment for this class is to follow the steps for this exercise: The Sense Memory.

I adapted this exercise from an acting exercise that serves to help the actor use an intense recollection to fuel a moment on stage. For writing it can be like a prop, you remember something real that produces a significant memory that might help you identify your narrative.


The Sense Memory

Please try for at least a full page of writing. If one object ceases to work, choose another from the list. Start with a sheet of paper in front of you so when you are ready to write, you have this handy.

  1. Allow yourself to fully relax, close your eyes, and breathe deeply and evenly. Let your mind wander back to when you were about 7-11. Recall an inside place where you spent time, felt good and can remember at least a few details.
  2. In your mind’s eye, go there. Don’t force anything. Just open the door and walk inside. Continue to stay relaxed and open. Don’t criticize yourself. Turn off the negative voices. Be the person you were who might have still believed in the tooth fairy, etc.
  3. Start to make a mental note of all the objects in the room. Look around the floor, the walls, the ceiling, notice windows, curtains, any details. Look for toys, etc.
  4. Take your pen and start making a list. You can think of this as an inventory. Just write down everything you “see”. If there’s a color involved (green chair), make sure you include that.
  5. When you have a full page of stuff, stop writing. Put your pen down and allow yourself to stop for a moment.
  6. Now, go through the list and see which object, detail (s) makes you stop and think. Circle that thing (s).
  7. At the top of a fresh piece of paper, write down that object: “The green chair” and then start to write. You can begin with “I remember” or any way you want.


Now, we look for story. Wait a day or so. Read what you have written aloud without any editing. Is there a part that drags or makes no sense? What is providing conflict? What stops you as you are reading and brings up another memory, an idea, a feeling. What is that feeling? Think about element of story and see if you can incorporate the sense memory into a piece of fiction writing.


Molly Moynahan, FacultyMolly Moynahan graduated from The MFA Program at Brooklyn College with her first novel published by Harper & Row, Parting is All We Know of Heaven (1988). She published novel #2 in 1990, Living in Arcadia (Bantam-Transworld) and Novel # 3, Stone Garden (HarperCollins-2003), Stone Garden was a New York Times Notable book. She has been teaching creative writing for 20+ years at Universities (Rutgers, SMU, Loyola, DePaul) and as a high school English teacher. She writes a column for The Neworld Review called A Writer’s World.