The Emotional Shock of Memory on a Sunday Morning

I didn’t see it coming: the shock; the rawness of loss; my father’s voice; the connection to a long-dead songwriter; my recall of lyrics from old country songs.

My father was much older than my mother; their cultural influences were a generation apart. My father died in 1985. He was many things in his life: rancher; explosives expert; orderly in a military hospital; Bureau of Reclamation employee; refinery security guard. He did whatever was necessary to pay the bills.

He was a self-taught, talented harmonica player. He could play a few songs on a piano, and he could sing–not great, but in key. He sang lustily or mournfully, depending on the song.

When I was a child, we would take road trips throughout Wyoming and South Dakota. To pass the miles–often on poorly maintained roads where we moved at a snail’s pace–he would sing to us. At home, in the evenings, he’d play his harmonica.

I remembered two songs he sang often, “Red River Valley,” and “Put My Little Shoes Away.” I was moved by the latter, probably because I was a child, and it was about a child’s death. Although those songs remind me of him, so do hundreds of others things.

This morning was typical: I was watching the Sunday Morning show, sipping coffee and chatting with the resident musician. When Charles Osgood announced his retirement and signed off, he sang a bit of “So Long, It’s Been Good to Know You.” As often happens, that led to a conversation which resulted in my dragging out my iPad. This time, I was looking up Woody Guthrie and the original lyrics to “Dusty Old Dust.”

In the midst of my research, I found a link to a singer and songwriter of the early 1930s–Carson Robison. From there,  I discovered an archive of some of the songs he performed (singing and playing harmonica).

That was when the emotional shock occurred. As I read down the list, and began to listen to the old recordings, I realized that I already knew the lyrics to many of the songs. Amazingly, from deep in buried memory, the words emerged. I felt a bit like people must when they get a knock on the head and, allegedly, wake up proficient in a language other than their native language. It wasn’t only the surprise of knowing the lyrics, but the feelings they engendered. I was in tears and couldn’t figure out why until I made the connection.

My father grew up during a time, and in an area of the West, where country music was popular, and old-time lyrics were appreciated and revived. He must have followed the music (radio or records) of Robison. He must have emulated the harmonica virtuoso of Robison and sung those lyrics to me. I’d only consciously remembered the “Red River” and” Little Shoes” ones, but the others were there, and they carried all the emotional impact of seeing my father again.

As writers, we often mine our memories to find inspiration–the muse that lives in our mind (As opposed to a Muse that reportedly hovered over the shoulders of poets in previous centuries–although I wouldn’t mind having one of those as well). Often these memories carry emotional force, but we are somewhat prepared, having consciously dredged up the memory to form or enliven our prose or poetry.

It is the memories that surface when we least expect them that shake us. And, maybe, those are the ones that deserve the most attention. Think what passion those memories triggered, and write while you are still feeling the joy or the sorrow, the pleasure or the sting.

Have you had a similar experience? Did it motivate you? Did you write about it?

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Naked I Write

This morning, I had the house to myself. This doesn’t often happen, since we both work at home. After a second cup of coffee, I stripped to get into the shower, then remembered I’d planned to clean the kitchen floor and vacuum a few throw rugs. My choices were limited: I could go to the trouble of getting dressed again before doing the housework, or I could just get out my electric broom and whip through the cleaning au naturel.  I was alone after all. I won’t furnish details-suffice it to say my final decision was extremely liberating.

As I worked, I thought about the self-imposed restrictions we place on our writing. What should be limited? What should be exempt? In fiction, we have considerable latitude in making decisions about language, nudity, sex, and violence. Other than plagiarism or defaming a living person, we only have to consider what kind of book or story we want to write, and what is needed to make it authentic. When we determine our target audience, the boundaries are fairly clear. We have a framework within a particular genre, and aimed at a particular group of readers. Assuming we have good judgment, we usually can rein in our writing to conform.

It’s often said that all writing is autobiographical, and to an extent I believe that is true, at least in a general sense. Science fiction and fantasy might be the exception, but writers frequently include their experiences, preferences, and attitude into the development of both character and plot. Again, not a problem in fiction.

Nonfiction is where the dilemma often occurs. Should the writer be free to write the facts–and their opinion–without restraint, or should he or she consider who might be offended, hurt, or shocked by the revelations? Can our prose be naked, or must it be clothed?

Consider a memoir. Usually, memoir will involve some family history. While the family history in itself might not be a problem, it becomes controversial when other family members are disturbed by the material. Sometimes it is only a matter of different perspectives; at other times, the distress is because unpleasant facts or secrets are revealed.

When publishing a memoir, we also have to consider the danger of breaching our own privacy limits. It’s not always easy to achieve a balance between what makes engaging reading (and, hopefully, book sales) and personal risk.

How do we set those limits?  Do we protect ourselves from humiliation and criticism, or do we simply state unvarnished facts?

I wrestle with this every time I add a line to my memoir, or write a scene that draws on my own experience. I am coming around to the notion that I need to develop my own literary litmus test. I still working on it, but I have a few points in mind.

1.    Follow the “need to know” rule. Will the information, if included, enhance either the readability or the interest level of the work?

2.    Is it self-indulgent? Is it motivated by vanity, justification, rationalization, sensationalism, drama? Confession as a means to expiate guilt?

3.     Who is the absolute last person I would want to read the story, book, essay? What would their reaction be if they read it? How would it affect our relationship?

4.    Would the general reader care one way or the other; that is, could the material cause harm with no benefit, thus not be worth the risk?

5.    How do I want to be remembered? As a writer? A person?

“A memoir is an invitation into another person’s privacy.”
Isabel Allende

“If you do not tell the truth about yourself, you cannot tell it about other people.”
Virginia Woolf