Using your memory bank

Jan Marx

Write what you know. Know what you write. Following the advice of these two statements will keep a writer out of trouble with the “reading police” most of the time.

So, what do you know? Poverty? War? Southern Indian customs? How to build a soap box racer? No? Then don’t write about any of those topics. You say you want to write, but don’t know how to begin. Go to your memory bank. There is a wealth of information.

As a writing teacher, the first exercise I used was usually to brainstorm and make a list of the writer’s favorite memories. Try it!

Here’s one of my lists: grandparents, Santa Fe, fishing, train travel, snakes, living in Europe.

If you haven’t done so already, write your list. The first reaction to writing a memory is, “Oh, I’ll write about ‘such-and such’,” only to realize how broad the topic is. Editing is the answer.

Now that we each have a list (yea!) the next step is to choose one of your points and brainstorm with it. Why? For instance, I chose “living in Europe”. There’s so much to say. In order to avoid becoming tangled in a net of “piranha ideas” that nibble away at the point, it’s best to take a moment and brainstorm again to refine your topic and make it more manageable.

Here’s my new list for “living in Europe”: food, Schwetzingen, living on the economy, church in Heidelberg, Uschi, German schools, readers’ theater and we could go on and on and on. Again, I narrow the subject. We lived in Schwetzingen, a charming town near Heidelberg. There’s still plenty to write about. For now, I want to talk about my dear friend Uschi.

My list is reduced to: the story of her escape from East Berlin; wrapping ourselves against the cold to sit outside and drink coffee and enjoy the sun; our last meeting before she died; our letters and emails after I returned to Denton; our daughters and the snow of 1991. Details grow as the brain spills them.

The final choice is, “the story of her escape from East Berlin”. Any pressure I once felt about what to write is relieved. My first sentences will be something like, “Her heart pounded. German soldiers stood beside the trolley, smoking. The escape route. When the patrol moved down the tracks, Uschi and her family would run for their lives, for freedom. For now, though, they must wait, anticipating.”

It’s your turn. See what happens. You are now ready to write!