Several years ago, I wrote in this space about the free library services available to the blind and visually impaired at the Talbot County Free Library. In that column, I reminisced about weekend visits I made as an adolescent to my widowed grandmother, who was legally blind and needed help with her household chores and grocery shopping.
After reading that column, a friend of mine asked if I would give a talk on memory to a group of her neighbors who wanted to learn how to write about and record their own memories. I jumped at the chance for a simple reason.
Twenty-some-odd years ago, I set out to write a novel set in the “Dark Ages,” a novel whose narrator would be an elderly monk coming to grips with the fact that as a child, an oblate, he had committed a terrible sin. Hence the book’s title, “The Oblate’s Confession.” But as I wrote the story, I found Brother Winwæd coming up repeatedly against the limits and contradictions of memory. How do you write honestly about something that happened so long ago you can’t honestly claim to remember it well? More to the point, having recounted a memory over and over again to family and friends, inevitably modifying and improving the story with each retelling, at what point does the memory cease to be a simple record of things that actually happened and become instead something else entirely?
But even as Winwæd and I railed against memory’s weaknesses, we found ourselves paradoxically struck by its power. Dredging up scents and sounds from my own childhood to lend flavor to my narrator’s fictional one, the two of us became more and more convinced that all the beauties and agonies of our adult lives find their source in our childhoods — that the perceptions and reckonings of childhood, its mysteries and misunderstandings, entirely color those of our later years. Which explains, I think, why, happily, from time to time, our subconscious renders up the perfect metaphor just when we need it, for the original idea and the metaphor that illuminates it both spring from the same cradle.
As my monk narrator and I came to grips with these issues, an extended meditation on memory became a sub-theme of my novel. And even after I completed work on “The Oblate’s Confession” that meditation continued. What are we, finally, but our memories? The present, the “now” we all like to think we know and inhabit so comfortably, is, of course, in fact, a racing tide, one that recedes perpetually away from us, carrying even the sand beneath our feet back into a vast, unsettled sea, the place we call “the past.” We are the sum of our memories — what we have learned, what we have failed to learn — we are memory’s product. Of course I jumped at the chance to talk to my friend’s neighbors about memoir-writing; I’d been wondering about memory, looking for an audience to explore it with, for years now.
And then, not too long ago, at one of our library’s regularly scheduled programming committee meetings, our director suggested we do a program she wanted to call “Memoir-Writing in Five Minutes.” But whom, she asked, could we get to lead such a discussion?
In the Easton branch of the Talbot County Free Library at 6:30 p.m. Monday, July 15, and again at 11 a.m. Thursday, July 25, in our St. Michaels branch (as part of that branch’s regular biweekly memoir-writing group), I will lead a program I’m calling “Memoir-Writing in Something like Forty-Five Minutes” (not sure I could get it done in five).
I invite you to investigate the past with me. Let’s see what we can recall. Let’s see what we can recall, and then let’s see if it’s possible — through the craft of our writing — to make what we’ve recalled live and breathe again.