Monday, September 17, 2018

Childhood Memories—A Window to the Writer's Story


This weekend I’m offering a writing workshop on childhood memories. What do we remember as a child? Why those memories and not others? Where did we grow up? Who were our parents? Our siblings?

According to psychologists, memories from childhood are predictors of who we are to become. They serve as a window to the writer.

When childhood memories become too painful to write, what to do? I can only speak from my own experience. Writing them—not to mention sharing them—happens when the time is right. For me, writing about verbal abuse and bullying I endured when I was fourteen years old came after the #MeToo movement and other women stepped forward and shared their voices. Then, I felt “safe”—or maybe the better word is validated—that my story mattered, as I wrote in this essay Sexual Harassment and Bullying: A Woman Remembers.

Sometimes, remembering our childhood and the people who populated it can be a source of comfort and enlightenment.

One of my most vivid childhood memories took place on an afternoon—I think it was November—in Pennsylvania; a gray day with the smell of burning leaves in the air. There was the juxtaposition of watching my father chop wood and feeling secure with him, but also this sense of loneliness, of isolation in a tight-lipped suburban neighborhood where secrets abounded. Even as a child of eight or nine, I began to become aware of the peculiarities…that the woman across the street, who had two adopted children, including a son who acted out in dramatic and dangerous ways, was an alcoholic; that the family with five children didn’t have much money and most of their toys and clothes were hand-me-downs and the parents never joined the street barbecues or cocktail parties. I suppose what stuck out was this feeling that outside the womb of my safe, little nuclear family, unusual things were happening in a bigger, scarier world.

Sometimes, childhood memories come not in a scene—like my father chopping wood—but a place. In Again in a Heartbeat, I wrote of a memory when I was about six years old in Ocean City, NJ.

When I was a little girl my father held me up in the water above the roaring cauldron of ocean. “Take me out to the hair combers, Daddy!” I shouted, using the name he had for ocean waves. 

I remember the feeling as we rocked up and down in the water, the taste of salt on my lips. I felt safe in my father’s arms, a memory that is acute because I believe it led to a desire as a young woman to be kept safe and warm in a man’s arms. 

Does remembering and writing childhood memories make for better writers? I believe ‘yes’ it does. Self-discovery and self-acceptance of our experiences and our lives and our perspectives gives us confidence of voice, whether writing about ourselves and those we knew, or writing fictional characters from an understanding of human psychology.

I have edited many manuscripts over the years where writers have penned childhood memories. There is this sense, they tell me, that these memories linger, demand to be recalled and written, whether as memoir or fiction, and in doing so the writer finds her story.

That’s where a writing community of supportive listeners comes in. Together, we share our stories, our lives, our memories and travel a journey that begins to feel less lonely, less tethered in the “here and now” and more about something greater than ourselves. Like that tight-lipped suburban neighborhood...it really served as a microcosm of life, a classroom, so to speak, of what was to come in life. Through writing, we learn to love ourselves, love each other, and together make each other stronger—as women and as writers.

How about you? Can you share how writing childhood memories evoke a passage to your story and your voice?

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