“Memories play a pivotal role in storytelling whether you’re interested in writing short stories, children’s books, creative non-fiction, a memoir, or a novel,” says Cheryl Crabb. “Memories can provide backstory and help reveal and develop character, but they also have the power to propel your narrative forward in interesting ways. That said, for many writers, manipulating memories by moving between then and now and into the future can often be a difficult path to navigate.”
I couldn’t agree more. All my 12 books – from fiction to nonfiction, poetry and memoir – I’ve called upon the past to guide me into formulating words on paper. Our favorite and least favorite memories can provide a treasure of good literary ideas.
Cheryl says that in his craft book, Six Walks in the Fictional Woods, author Umberto Eco invites us as his companions to: “Come stroll with me through the leafy glades of narrative …” He also asks us to consider: How does the narrative lead us on, [AND] persuade us to lose ourselves in its depths?
“I don’t know about you, but when I first began to ponder this question, I started to get afraid,” she says. “I felt like I was alone in the woods without direction. And for me, few things are more terrifying than getting lost, especially in the woods. It makes me want to turn around and run home. I suspect I’m not alone in this fear, which often is so intense that it prevents us as writers from entering the woods in the first place.”
She adds that, instead, we choose to stay within the safe confines and comfort of more familiar territory. She encourages people to journey “deep into the woods and beyond” and will be leading a workshop for the Detroit Working Writers Conference on November 10 that will help writers explore how memories can help shape our stories and perhaps even change our lives.
A Wisconsin native, Cheryl Crabb is a long-time journalist and emerging fiction writer. She has worked for fifteen years in newspapers, including the Atlanta Journal-Constitution and The Hartford Courant, and been a guest columnist for the Detroit Free Press. She lives with her husband and their three daughters in Northville and enjoys volunteering for 826michigan, which provides writing programs to school-age students. She recently received her MFA in Writing from the Vermont College of Fine Arts and is currently seeking representation for her novel, The Other Side of Sanctuary.
Her novel is based on the premise that everyone needs a sanctuary, but what happens when there is no longer a place for refuge? Set in the fictional village of Sanctuary along the Sleeping Bear Dunes of northern Michigan, it’s a dual-narrative, literary thriller about a young couple’s troubled marriage and the spooling tensions that arise as a dark series of events unfolds.
“Time draws the shapes of stories.” Joan Silber asserts in the introduction to The Art of Time in Fiction: As Long as It Takes. “… all fiction has to contend with the experience of time passing. … A story can arrange events in any order it finds useful, but it does have to move between then and now and later.” So, as Silber interprets it: “A story is already over before we hear it. That is how the teller knows what it means.”
Memories are a rich source for writers. When we bring them to life, we learn a new lesson, see a different perspective. My fondest memories are of the wonderful magic I experienced when, as a child, I walked to school in Baghdad, wearing a custom-made uniform, my hair in braids, tied by bright white imitation silk ribbons. I remember those walks so well: the frosty grass in the winter, birds chirping in spring, the sounds of my shoes click-clacking against an ancient surface that once was famed as the wealthiest and richest city in the world. On my way home from school, I could tell from the aroma what my mother had cooked. Various vegetable stews served over rice are a major part of Iraqi cuisine. The vegetables range from eggplant to cucumber. My favorites were okra stew and northern white bean stew.
Drawing from your favorable and not so favorable memories is a way to help you celebrate your life and those who have shared your journey. It’s a luxury to sit and reflect on the past, to evaluate it, recognize certain patterns and learn along the way. You come to learn that experiences, your stories, are much more fascinating and interesting than those of celebrities. Writing from your memories is transformational.
Watch the half-hour interview with Cheryl and check out the upcoming Detroit Working Writers Conference, visit http://www.detworkingwriters.org/conference/