How Memories Enhance Your Writing

“Don’t worry,” the student leader shouted into his bullhorn. “We are talking with the police and they have agreed to back off for five minutes.” He was speaking to hundreds of us, jammed arm in arm into the hallway. “Five minutes doesn’t seem like a very long reprieve,” I said to the girl next to me. Through the picture windows I could see a mob of uniformed men, clubs in hand, only a few dozen yards from where I stood.

Moments later, our nervous chatter was interrupted by the sound of breaking glass, and then angry shouts as cops poured through the opening towards us. I looked for an escape, but the tightly packed bodies blocked my way. Suddenly I was looking through a plastic facemask into the eyes of a man ready to strike me. Our eyes locked in an embrace of confusion and fear. He hesitated and I broke free, wheeled around, and ran down the hall, through the pandemonium and out the exit.

Those images, still with me decades later, turn out to be a valuable resource for my writing. More than ever, readers want ideas to come not from a disembodied expert, but from a flesh and blood person. When I show them helmeted men storming through broken glass, readers see a sixties riot at the University of Wisconsin through my eyes. My personal experience makes me an expert, not based on what I’ve read in books, but on what I saw. Instead of universal truth, my observations empower readers to reach their own conclusions. It’s an intimate sort of expertise, and very much in fashion.

Personal storytelling turns any writer into an expert on a vast array of human conditions. Take addictions for example. If you want to get inside that experience, consider situations when you act compulsively. If you’ve never been addicted to drugs, tell what it feels like to reach for a cookie, even as you’re telling yourself not to, and as the cookie passes between your lips, you scream “NO!”

Memories take you inside the story

The external story is easy to see. Kids crowded into a building. The police threw them out. And then the action shifted to outside. But to tell the heart of the story, you need to see inside the characters, what they think and feel. You can’t know someone else’s inner life, but you can know your own. And you can use this knowledge to convey authentic feelings in your writing.

After the police cleared the building, they stood guard, facing a growing mob of kids pouring in from all over campus. Someone shouted “cover your face” as acrid gas poured from the canisters that fell in our midst. Outraged, we screamed epithets, when out of the chaos a chant erupted. As if possessed, we shrieked “Sieg Heil, Sieg Heil” in deafening unison, our arms snapping straight with each repetition. By this time, I was near the entrance to the building when a surge from behind pressed me forward and the cop a few yards in front of me lost his balance, and started going down.

If I looked on the outside, I would only see angry kids fighting cops. But inside, I know about the dreams and fears that fueled those events. I woke up that morning intending to fight for peace. The whole protest was based on the idea that if we gathered together, we would have enough power to get our message to the world. But this wasn’t the power I wanted. This was a real person. I didn’t want to knock down a real person. I just wanted him to understand my needs.

Now that I have started looking inside my own motivations that day, I can look more carefully at the people around me. For example, if I want to write about a cop who has to wake up, strap on his gun, and face a dangerous world, I would not at first be able to imagine his state of mind. But I can glimpse it by remembering how I felt when I woke up that morning ready to put himself in harm’s way. Both of us shared the same goal, trying to defend the world against the forces of chaos.

Memories are a repository for writers

These thoughts and feelings coursed through me that day, and for the rest of my life, I know what it feels like to be part of a mob, rebelling against armed men, frightened and angered by their power. I know what it’s like to heave myself into a protest only to end up with more suffering than when I began. Like a bank robber who thinks he’s going to get money for his family, and instead spends years in jail, the tension between intentions and results is one of the forces that drives stories.

This research into the inner lives of characters is not limited to huge upheavals. If I observe to myself carefully, I can find insights about other people hidden within my own ordinary moments. Suppose I want to explain the thoughts of a bank robber. As I drive my car above the speed limit, I’m breaking the law. Not a big deal, right? But when I listen carefully to my thoughts I gain some insights into the criminal mind. “I won’t get caught.” “My goal overrides the value of this particular law.” “I won’t hurt anyone.”

Flashing across time gives you deeper insight

To write a story, I need to translate life into words. That turns out to be an ambitious goal. Looking at the world one day at a time, it doesn't seem like a story. We wake up, go to work, have dinner, go to bed. At first glance, it doesn’t add up to much.

But memory gives me the power to see the results of my actions across a span of months and years. From this broader perspective, I learn things that bring depth and authenticity to the story. The day in Wisconsin, we were protesting the presence of Dow Chemical job recruiters on campus. A decade later, I am going out on my own job interview. I’m the same person, but now with very different needs. By watching my story unfold through time, I become wiser about the unfolding of other characters. I can see now how some students just wanted to get to class, so they could get out and get a job. I can see now how our parents looked at us in horror, as if we had lost our minds.

Day after day, as we float down the river of time, events occur in sequence. Later when we look back on those events, we don’t remember the sequence exactly, but see bits and pieces of it in isolated fragments. It’s the writer’s job to tie the fragments together and turn them back into a story.

Today, I’m staring at an “age spot” on my hand. That’s strange. When I was in that riot, I would have seen the smooth skin of a twenty-year old. There was no single event that caused this spot. I look back through my memories, I travel from decade to decade, in forward or reverse, at different speeds, finding themes changing, people changing, time adding up. Then, I connect the dots and find the story.

Explore yourself, change the world.

“Look, mommy,” children say, to attract their parent’s gaze. Her look somehow infuses their lives with greater meaning. As adults, we no longer are so blatant about our request for attention, but that desire still drives us, as we look to the attention from other people to make us feel more alive. This urge for more attention drives public displays of all kinds.

This motivation to be known by strangers sounds suspiciously like self-involved exhibitionism, like those kids at football games who paint their stomachs green in hopes of being seen on national television. It’s true that memoir writers show part of ourselves in public. But we also offer readers a gift when we show them the world through our eyes. In fact, that’s one reason people read. They have already been inside their own mind. Reading our words lets them get inside someone else’s. Our inner vistas enrich their lives.

When I entered that school building in Madison, Wisconsin, I thought my actions would somehow create a positive change. A cop with a Billy club dashed that hope and I gave up. Forty years later, the dream of changing the world stirs once again. But now, instead of confronting an armed man, I can write my dreams, my hopes, my learning about life, and strive to accomplish the goals I longed to achieve on that powerful, memory laden day.