Monday, May 6, 2013

The Roots of Writing

This is the story of how we begin to remember
This is the powerful pulsing of love in the vein
After the dream of falling and calling your name out
These are the roots of rhythm
And the roots of rhythm remain

                                                Paul Simon, "Under African Skies"

I was listening to Paul Simon's Graceland album the other day. I'm also teaching a class called "Write Your Memoir," and I recently wrote a reflective "artist's statement" about my own writing career. Perhaps its the timely confluence of the three streams that has kept the refrain from "Under African Skies" (above) flowing through my head as I ponder its meaning.

This is the story of how we begin to remember. It's a story essential to all creativity if not meaningful life itself. Certain forms of writing - memoir, history, biography, for instance - are overtly centered on the past as conjured through memory and research. But that fact is that all writing, even sci fi set in the future and "pure" nonfiction, draw on memory. Unless we have profound amnesia or some other problem, we can't not use memory.

Still, some memories are slippery. Some are only partially formed, while others hide from us. And if you've ever compared your memories of events with those of your family or friends, you probably agree that some memories are shapeshifters, taking different forms for different people. That's because we are by nature story tellers, and "story" is more than a recounting of events. Story gives shape to those events, and the teller of the story selects details to include, omit, expand, pare down, change. But I digress.

So how do we begin to remember? Here are a few ideas that work for me:

  • Freewrite. This is nothing new, but if you haven't let yourself go in a stream-of-consciousness freewrite for a while (or ever?), give it a try. I tell my students that any length of time is better than none, but I find that the magic begins to happen after twenty or thirty minutes for me. This is true whether I'm truly freewriting or I'm composing a piece of writing that I think has a specific focus or form.
  • Walk. Or do something else that involves repetitive physical activity but leaves your mind mostly free. Leave the earbuds, the dog, and the friend/SO at home, turn off the tv is you're on a treadmill. Just move and let your mind go where it will. I've solved many a writing problem while walking. Try it.
  • Look. At pictures. Pull out your old albums (or, if you're like me, the boxes of photos you will someday put into albums!) and see where the pictures take you. Make notes about memories that come to you. If you're trying to conjure a specific time period, go to the library or online and find photos from that period. Both the public images of various media and more private images that you can dig up may stir a lot of memories.
  • Listen. Music is a terrific door into memory. Most of us associate certain songs with specific times, places, people, events. Find "top twenty" lists from the time you want to enter and make yourself a play list. YouTube, by the way, is superb for this - I've spent hours surfing videos of young Elvis and Grace Slick and Boy George and - oh, I could go on and on!
There are lots more techniques, of course - brainstorming, mind mapping, and so on - but that should get us started. Have a creative day! I'm off now to dig into the roots of my own rhythms.


Come back Wednesday, when my guest Monica Agnew-Kinneman will be telling us about her book So This is Heaven and a subject dear to my own heart, the joys of adopting older animals.


  1. Hi Sheila - this is an interesting blog ... I've often thought I'd like to write but then think - "about what?" The thought I always come up with is a kids book (because illustrations could be so cute!), but that's as far as I ever get ... :)

    1. We all started somewhere, MeryMeloD! If you really want to write but can't get rolling, why not sign up for a non-credit class through a local writers' center, community college, or other source (I'm teaching right now through our local art museum). There are also some good online classes available. That might get you rolling. Or follow along here on my blog and when something strikes you, give it a try! Once you start, you may find that your subject(s) find you.

  2. Lovely to find your blog from Google+. Welcome! I too write fiction and poetry (as well as nonfiction articles on quilting, from time to time). Your post resonated with me as I'm toying with the idea of writing some memoir and who doesn't love Paul Simon. Your blog has a teacherly flavor, just right for motivating (and building your audience). I'm not sure I've 'found' the right voice for my blogs . . . but will write on! May your writing week go well. Beth

    1. Beth, I'm so sorry to be SO late replying! Somehow your comment slid right by me. Anyway - yes, keep writing. Your voice will emerge if you let it develop from the writing itself. I hope you will follow my blog - it's a bit eclectic, but I think good writers are. :-)