Lately writers have gotten two bits of advice on what to write about: write what you know—the old literary standard, and the new, write about those things that you’ve always wanted to know.
Either piece of advice will put words on a page, but the question is: what kind of words are sticking to that page?
During the February Blog Challenge on my Wordpress blog, Claudy’s Blog, I’ve talked about my family. I haven’t given away the store, by any means. I’ve dived into those strong personal memories that surged to the surface of the memory pool. They were strong in personal meaning, not necessarily in perfect imagery. They were things I’ve known from the past.
Since beginning, I’ve spoken to a couple of family members who remember additional info about specific aspects of those I’ve written about. I learned things that were previously hidden from me. In doing this challenge, I started a process of looking at family about which some was known to me, as well as the people who carry those additional memories.
How to Learn About Memory Carriers?
People store memories in odd ways that even the experts haven’t unraveled completely. Associations made up of emotion, sensory triggers, and/or trauma link aspects of memories within the brain and the mind. Ever wonder why the scent of a favorite baked goodie makes you feel good and think of mom or grandma? What about that sharp pain in your shin? Didn’t that leg get whacked during a Little League game?
Those associate olfactory and pain triggers have kicked in to bring emotion and their accompanying memories to the surface. In fact, many believe the sense of smell triggers the strongest and most accurate memory links.
My theory is that people reveal themselves through what they remember and the sensory triggers that call up those memories as much as through how they behave.
Many writers use this knowledge to build characters that are believable, rounded out, and belong in anyone’s family or town. This ability to reveal a person’s internal truth shows a character’s motivations, personal history, aspirations, what-have-you.
When I talked of my Dad’s lessons in field and forest, I was standing beside him, listening to what I remembered of his words, his tone; watched his gestures and facial expressions. The memory movie ran until I stopped it to move on to another lesson memory.
Like most people, hearing a song on the radio puts me immediately back into the time and place where I heard the song for the first time or into the most personally important event of my life up to that point. Flip the record and I do a similar bit of time travel.
The sound of a particular word or phrase—especially if it’s in dialect—and my world will shift to that place and those whom I’ve known who use that word or phrase in the same manner.
Collecting and Using the Knowledge
Think back to people you know within the family. What do you know about their lives? Isn’t it true that you think you know only what they’ve told you about their earlier lives?
You can broaden your view of them by sifting through your own memories; sort out the conversation or trigger that brought about the telling of your family member’s recollections. When you talked to you grandmother, for instance, as she helped you make your first cookies, didn’t she reminisce about baking like this with one of her loved ones?
Body language exhibits unconscious cues to internal feelings and can’t be totally controlled. Do you recall what her face showed during that retelling of a past event? Was her tone lovingly gentle, filled with suppressed laughter, or tight-lipped with suppressed emotion? Did her eyes sparkle and her hands pause as she stared off into space for a moment, lost to that memory?
All of those tiny cues hold keys to a life lived before you existed. They speak of that person as you’ve never known them. You have only to take note of them and add the information and supposition to your working knowledge of this person who belongs in your family.
Watch a speaker’s body language as carefully as you listen to her words. Together, speech and physical cues can fill out your mental photo of that person. Use that information in ways that help your relationship, create a believable character, and expand family history and your understanding of it.
You can now write about something you know. You can also dive deeper into things unknown for the sake of knowledge about someone in your life. These are examples of what writers do, some of what this writer does, and why all writers need to use what they know and be able dig into what they don’t know.