Memory and Writing

A few weeks ago, I told you that I was going to North Carolina to empty out my mother’s home. On August 20 (her 96th birthday had she made it to that landmark), we completed the task. I say “we,” but really I was under the supervision of Robbie, my sister-in-law, who was able to mastermind the entire operation. She brought one of her friends over, and we hired a couple of other people to help us.  And soon it was all done. Except for the things we kept aside for ourselves, we virtually gave away everything to other family members, friends, and the Salvation Army.

From Ruth’s studio

Now as I sit at home here in Minneapolis, I have six boxes and one huge suitcase full of memorabilia: old notebooks and journals, letters, art supplies, books, photos, and a thimble collection.

I fear that these objects will become more of the “piles and files” that Janet Sunderland wrote about in an earlier blog.

Yet I want to use what I’ve brought home to help me write about her life. My goal is to write as honestly as I can and not coat the past in the rosy glow of some old movie. I don’t want simply to record details or re-tell old stories or even write a family history. I’ve already written a suite of poems about Ruth. I think that what these boxes hold will not fit into the compact confines of a poem. Yet the idea of writing a novel or a mother-daughter memoir seems a little bigger than I can fathom right now.

I don’t know where to start.

My mother’s notes from her art studio

So I’m turning to you who are reading these words to tell me how you’ve used memory in your writing. Now that we have lived so long, how do we work with all that material from the past to create something new and fresh and honest?

In the next guest blog, Cleo Fellers Kocol writes about how she transformed memory into a short story.  Her story, “My Cousin Olivia,” was included in the anthology, When Last on the Mountain: The View from Writers over 50. (See excerpt.) The story seems almost like memoir, but Cleo was quick to confirm that it is fiction.  In her guest essay, she tells about the transformative power of memory.

Send your ideas about memory and writing to, and we’ll include some of them in future blogs.  Or add your comments to the blogs. 

Tell us about a memory and how it worked its way into your writing, or what happened as you tried to write about memories. We look forward to hearing from you. 

6 thoughts on “Memory and Writing

  1. I’ve been thinking about you, hoping the clearing out was going reasonably well.

    You write, “I don’t know where to start.” Perhaps because it’s not time yet. And perhaps the word “start” somehow implies a beginning when a beginning is so elusive. Maybe starting means writing down a memory and just let that be with no context for anything else right now.

    For example, I’ve been trying to write about the three years I lived in Mexico, primarily Mexico City, for a long time. I wrote it once, years ago, but it wasn’t quite “it.” Although it was chronological. So I put it away. Recently, I began again; still couldn’t capture it. So I began reading.

    I read “The Cat’s Table” by Michael Ondaatje and liked the way he moved from one time period to another, and I sensed I just needed to begin writing what I remembered from any of those Mexican experiences. No beginning. Just writing. And then I happened across Natalie Goldberg’s book on memoir, “Old Friend from Far Away” and, at least at the beginning since I just got it, she says much the same. What are you thinking right now. Write it. Ten minutes. Just write.

    So I guess the long and short is that when I don’t know how to start, I read. Or I research. And now I’m going to just start writing bits, however they come out.

    Hope this gives you some ideas.

    • Indeed, it does. Thanks, Janet. This is exactly what I needed to hear. Let me know how your Mexico City writing progresses. I have Natalie’s book and plan to check out Ondaatje’s. I think I’ve been worried that the memory of her will begin to fade or that my own memory will dim before I get the words on paper.

  2. Vicky, I, too, went through my mother’s belongings. It was over forty years ago now, but it stays in my mind. It was not easy. At first it seemed like honey, sweet and sad. She had given me unquestioning support and unconditional love. Not only had I lost my mother, but in my life an era had passed. And in every older relative, I looked for a replacement, but, of course, didn’t find one that came even close. Then the memories became like sticky paper that I knew I had to pry loose, and I did. My own life, sweet, sometimes frustrating, always satisfying, went on. It still does as life goes on for me. But now, as those final years remind me. It is up to me what I will leave. Objects, of course — my books, my poetry, my awards. But will I be missed? people still speak my name? Does it matter? What matters is that I give joy and comfort now, that I embrace friends, forgive foes, and act as if I will go on forever.

    • Thank you, Cleo. Your message comes on just the right day. A couple of days ago, I unpacked the boxes; and as I look at the sad and crumbling contents, I understand why this is referred to as “ephemera.” It too is of this world. The words are fading on the old pages, but I am alive and well and living in this present moment. I don’t have to save it all; I don’t have to linger over it feeling wistful. Today we celebrated my granddaughter’s ninth birthday. It was a beautiful day of life and hope.

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