The Work of Memory: Journeys into Writing

by Daniel Bowman Jr. October 08, 2013

Our capacity to move forward as developing beings rests on a healthy relationship with the past. Psychotherapy, that widespread method for promoting mental health, relies heavily on memory and on the ability to retrieve and organize images and events from the personal past… If we learn not only to tell our stories but to listen to what our stories tell us—to write the first draft and then return for the second draft—we are doing the work of memory. —Patricia Hampl, “Memory and Imagination”

A few months ago I was asked to write a Journey into Poetry, a piece about how I came to love and write poems. I was reluctant, as I’d recently read similar pieces from American authors around my age, and they tended to cover the same ground. So-and-so was drawn to books early, wrote embarrassing juvenilia, then—by the third or fourth paragraph—ended up in a graduate program studying with Famous Writer A and Great Teacher B, and was soon publishing in magazines. The rest is history. Who would want to read another standard-issue artist’s coming of age?

Also, I had a sense that, in the few reflective essays I’ve published and interviews I’ve given, I’d already examined key moments from my early life when language drew me in. I didn’t want to go back again. I wanted to move forward.

But I took the assignment. I’m glad I did. First, because I realized that I had never truly explored some of my early book-related memories. I thought, for example, of our school librarian, Mrs. Noonan, at Harry M. Fisher Elementary School in Mohawk, New York. She read aloud to us year after year, shepherding our imaginations from Ezra Jack Keats and Roald Dahl to Madeline L’Engle and C.S. Lewis. The rhythms of language combined with her skillful intonation, the spectacular illustrations, and the sense of community are vivid and powerful in my mind even now.

It was not indulgent but inspiring to think through that recollection. I found myself looking with renewed excitement at my editor’s revisions on the forthcoming novel. I wanted to get to work again, after several days of fear, procrastination, and attendant self-loathing. Looking back helped me look forward; it reminded me of the pure magic that’s possible in the world of books and stories and nowhere else—a magic that’s easy to forget in the routines of work and family life.

In light of this experience, I thought I’d have my students compose their own Journeys into Writing. I hoped that the exploration of their memories would be inspiring, or even cathartic, for them. But I had no idea how much their journeys would exhilarate me.

Paula Weinman, a sophomore from North Fort Myers, Florida, articulated some key moments in the writer’s development. She wrote with humor and energy about imitation as a transitional moment from reading to writing:

As a kid, I was a ravenous reader. Before long, the library was no longer enough. I took the only available course of action: I started scribbling in spiral-bound notebooks. I wish I could say I filled those notebooks with glimmers of literary genius, but I was in actuality quite the little thief. I mastered the knack for breaking into other people’s books and kidnapping their characters. Once I had those characters, I would offer them what I thought was a deal: a starring role in one of my stories.

She also touched on metaphor as a foundation for her thinking about craft:

In sixth grade, I learned what craft was. It started with metaphor. The first metaphor I knew by name was Miss McPherson’s purse, which would have struck me as pretty had she not described it as a “fat, leathery burrito.” Metaphor! Finally, I could accurately describe my favorite book: it bristles with metaphor, I could say. Writing was unveiled that day.

Her likeable voice and easy style cut into the high-stakes, high-strung attitude I’ve had toward writing of late. As I have a book coming out, I’ve overdosed on blogs about marketing, branding, social networking, and the rest, losing sight of the work itself and the joy of creating. Paula’s reflection reminded me of why I love writing:

I know many writers feel desperate to write, but that doesn’t happen to me often. I write. . .because I like the way the light speckles an apple after I wash it. I write because I want to give a name to the sensation of living, and I’ve discovered it has more names than I have time to write down.

———

If you never quite feel at home in your life, if being conscious means primarily being conscious of your own separation from the world and from divinity (and perhaps any sentient person after modernism has to feel these things), then any idea or image that can translate that depletion into energy, those absences into presences, is going to be powerful. —Christian Wiman, “Gazing into the Abyss”

Junior Becca Hartman of San Antonio focused on a family move from South Carolina to Texas in the middle of her sixth grade year. She invited readers into her story through vivid and devastating details. The move interrupted her life in all the worst ways, and corresponded with the awkwardness of puberty. She writes:

I made a few friends, but was so desperate for them to like me that they pulled away. When we walked around, I was the one on the edge, forced to walk in the grass to keep up. When a notebook of secrets called “Ducktape” circulated through class, I was kept out of the group who could read and write in it. I’m sure it contained some things about me. I remember one time when this boy asked me out as a joke. Later I found out that a friend knew about it but hadn’t bothered to warn me.

At church, I was the acolyte for my father, chanting words that had no meaning and learning to stare without blinking as my father preached. Jesus was a name to invoke to show—since I had nothing else—that at least I was holier than everyone.

At home I spent most of my time in my room listening to 105.3, the best of the 80s, 90s, and today on the radio. I was a frizzy-haired redhead with bad acne and dandruff, and my new school’s uniform made me look like a jellyfish. I saw pictures in magazines of women with silky hair, so I plastered mine down with gel in the mornings. It didn’t work; it only made me look like I had more dandruff, which flaked all over my maroon sweater. My insides shifted like tectonic plates. My belly and thighs were gelatinous and covered with stretch marks. All of a sudden I had breasts and they looked nothing like what I thought they should look like. (I watched television—I knew what I wanted them to look like.)

One day my dad gave me his old Windows 95 IBM Thinkpad. The only applications that worked on it were Word and Corel Paint. At night, after everyone was asleep, I stayed up and wrote. I wrote story after story. Sometimes I even made illustrations in Paint and added them. I never wrote about girls—girls couldn’t do what I wanted to do. I wrote about boys going on adventures, finding dragons and love interests and, ultimately, finding themselves.

I lived through those stories, lived in new worlds, magical places far away from school and Texas and my body. I kept writing. I wrote because I felt like I was dying and I needed to feel alive. It was the only way I could feel like I was important.

The class was rapt as Becca read us her essay. Around the room, the deep identification became palpable. Heads nodded in solemn agreement; some of us found ourselves holding our breath for fear that we’d miss something. It was plain that while writing had allowed her a level of escape from immediate life circumstances, it also enabled something much more primal, something near the heart of worth and identity that all of us understood.

In “Faith and Fiction,” Ron Hansen says, “We look to fiction for self-understanding, for analogies of encounter, discovery, and decision that will help us contemplate and change our lives.” I think the idea could be applied not just to fiction but to most literary work—and not just to reading, but perhaps even more profoundly to writing. I felt honored to be allowed into these students’ journeys. Their words do the real work of memory, giving us a glimpse at how they’ve contemplated and changed their lives through reading and writing, both then and now.

Have you considered your journey into writing? What stories do you need to tell? And what will those stories tell you?

———


Rebecca Hartman is a junior at Taylor University, majoring in English with minors in both Art and History. She is from San Antonio, Texas. She recently illustrated a narrative that is forthcoming in Relief Journal.  

 

 

Paula Weinman is a sophomore at Taylor University, majoring in Creative Writing and Professional Writing. She is a member of the Taylor Honors Guild and staff writer for The Echo. Her work has appeared in The Aboite Independent, Church Libraries Magazine, christianbookpreviews.com, and Parnassus, Taylor's literary journal.




Daniel Bowman Jr.
Daniel Bowman Jr.

Author

Daniel Bowman Jr. is the author A Plum Tree in Leatherstocking Country (VAC Poetry, 2012). A native of the Mohawk Valley in upstate New York, he lives with his wife, Bethany, and their two children in Hartford City, Indiana. He is Associate Professor of English at Taylor University. Find him on Twitter: @danielbowmanjr



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