Memory is a fickle companion, often unreliable, subjective, and prone to fictional enhancements. Neuroscience has proven that our memory is much less stable than we would like to believe, even without the added impediments of dementia or disease.
Story-telling is central to our sense of identity; we need our memories to maintain a sense of how the world works, and where we fit in to the larger picture. But being human, and busy, and prone to hubris, most of us never write our stories down. Even if you are a facebook junkie and habitually post pictures every day, the mental, emotional and contextual aspects of the events you are posting are still completely lost on anyone who wasn’t with you. The argument I’m slowly coming around to here, is that writing down your stories is a valuable activity, even if you NEVER intend to publish them. Here is why:
Most of us aren’t that interested in the lives of our parents and grandparents until we get a little older ourselves. Often, by the time we realize we are interested it is too late to ask. Even stories we’ve heard our parents tell us may be pretty hazy. Stories like “how I met my husband” are something your kids will really appreciate long after you are gone.
Events that seem mundane to us now might be fascinating to readers twenty years from now, for example, “the day I got covered in mimeograph ink.”
Reading your journals five or ten years later can be a source of hilarity. l once wrote in my journal that I was looking forward to moving to Walkerton because at least the water would be better. (I was living with very rusty well-water at the time). It actually was better…until the poisoning.
Stories are always more interesting when you remember the details. Chances are very good that if you wait to have more leisure time before jotting them down the details will be long forgotten.
Writing stories is therapeutic and a powerful exercise in self-reflection and insight. You will be a very different person ten or twenty years from now, but the changes will be so gradual and subjective that you won’t be able to see that growth happening. But you will see it when you go back and read those scribbled journals. Chances are you’ll have a good laugh reading about how your life was over after that jerk you were engaged to dumped you for somebody else.
While it is easy, in memory, to make general judgments about people you knew and loved, you will never really be able to describe them to anyone else without the details. For example, I had an uncle whom I adored and whom I thought was the most eccentric, funny person in the world, but since he has been dead for so long now I really struggle to bring to mind actual details of the things we did together. I only remember bits and pieces (like the weekend he delivered us to his cottage and decided to stay up. He had “packed” a pair of underwear in his trousers and considered himself good to go).
You don’t have to be Margaret Atwood to capture your important stories. Your friends or children won’t care about your spelling or grammar, but they will be thrilled to have that little piece of your personality to hang onto. Even if you only do it for your own pleasure, do take the time. Here are a few prompts to get you started:
- Pull out an old photo or two and describe what is happening. Where were you? How old were you? What do you remember? Who are the other people in the photo?
- Make a list: “the ten best things that ever happened to me.” Write something about each event.
- Pick a date, such as your sixteenth birthday, and try to remember as much as you can about what was going on in your life at that time.
Spend as much or as little time on these prompts as you like. Just remember that it will be time well-spent.
Until next time,
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Treat yourself to a day away just to write. Join us for a rejuvenating day of writing, yoga, good food and distraction-free time to write. Our June 23 retreat is the last one we’ll be offering until autumn.