Writing Prompted by the Words of Others

Last night I sat down to write, having not written for almost a week. My writing brain took fright at being expected to think, to come up with something, to produce some writing. The blank page stared up at me, like all good blank pages do, chastising me for my neglect.

Something had to be done, so I wrote the following at the top of the page. “Open the book I’m reading at a random page. Choose ONE SENTENCE from the page and write it down. Then keep writing for ten minutes.”

The book I grabbed was “To the River” by Olivia Laing, the story of the River Ouse in Sussex in England. The first page I randomly opened contained a historical story of no help at all. I tried again. Still no sentence appealed. The third attempt offered several gems and I chose the following:

‘And there was the Ouse, all of a tumble, the sun skating off it in panes of light.’

A vision immediately came to me of the swimming pool I spent so many years of my teenage life in, the pool my latest writing project is telling the story of. I noted the time – after all I needed to write for ten minutes – and started writing with ease, describing the atmosphere on the night of an important swim meet, with the lights beaming down on the water and the darkened sky above the outdoor pool. I wrote for about 20 minutes.

My short piece of writing wasn’t brilliant, but the pool at night wasn’t something I’d thought about including as part of my work in progress. I made a few reflective notes to myself at the bottom on how to make improvements, turned off the light and went to sleep.

A few hours later – as often is the case with writers – I awoke, my brain having processed my scribbling while I slept. There was nothing to do but turn on the light and write down the wonderful ideas drifting through my brain. I jotted down a few interesting words, a couple of possible metaphors and a few more surprising images I recalled. That was it, lights out and back to sleep until morning.

The prompt of a random sentence from another’s writing hadn’t occurred to me before. Although the book I read spoke of a river and my book is about a swimming pool, the water and reflection of the light gave me enough similarities to get started. I’ll certainly use the words of others as a prompt again if my writing is shy about revealing itself to me.

What about you? What tips do you use when the words refuse to come?

Writing Memoir – How Do You Remember So Much?

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For the past few years writing memoir has been my major focus, recording aspects of my life in the 1950s and 1960s. By capturing small snippets of my everyday life, I’ve been able to preserve memories from the past. The above photo certainly is my first recalled memory of going swimming, something that became a major focus of my teenage years.

After the publication of my 1950s school memoir, ‘West End the Best End – School Memories from the 1950s’ many people asked me, “How do you remember so much?  I’d forgotten all those things.” I don’t think my memory is any better than other people, but I’ve trained myself to recall incidents hiding somewhere in my brain. I also discovered the more I write my memories down, the more I remember.

I think one of the most important things is to keep your memoir writer’s brain switched on at all times. Almost anything you do in everyday life can be a trigger to memories from a previous time in your life. You need only to be receptive to the triggers around you. A supermarket queue can prompt memories of grocery shopping in earlier times. The doctor’s waiting room can prompt memories of childhood sickness.

One powerful trigger of my own memories is talking to other people. As I wrote my school memoir I engaged similar aged people in conversation about their own school days. Often they’d remember something I’d forgotten and so yet another memory surfaced. Other people love to share their past and once they’re aware you’re working on a memoir project they’re usually happy to compare notes of similar experiences. This adds depth to your own memories. I’ll certainly be talking to many of the people in the swim team below as I work on my latest project, the story of our local swimming baths in the 1960s.

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Old photos also enable memories to be recalled.  When you look at an old photo try and recall as much about the occasion as you can and write your memories down. Ask other people who may remember the photographed event about  their memories of the occasion.

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Reading other material, both fiction and non-fiction from the period being written about is another way of bringing memories back, reminding you how people behaved at the time, giving authenticity to your writing.

Always think of yourself as a memoir writer and keep your mind open. You never know when a little detail will present itself to you. Write remembered incidents down as soon as you can. It doesn’t matter if anecdotal stories are written out of order. There’s plenty of time to organize them and improve your writing later. The important thing is to start writing. You’ll be surprised how easily memories start flowing in.

Do you use other ideas that act as memory triggers? Be sure to share them with us here.

Add Texture to Your Writing with Colourful Threads

In the early days of writing our stories, preserving memories from the past, knowing how to include enough detail to make everyday events more interesting can be difficult. Often a photo is the only trigger needed to unleash a flood of memories and keep the writing moving along.

One such photo, randomly picked from a pile, boosted my writing this week, reminding me of things I’d long since forgotten. I held the 1950s photo in my hand and, although I could no longer remember the story behind the photo, the sight of my childhood clothing unravelled an unexpected thread as I wrote.

Posing for the photographer

Like Little Red Riding Hood, wrapped in her bright red cape, my mother chose red as the dominant colour in which to dress me. I picked up this red thread and wove it throughout my piece of writing, from a pretty red dress with an embroidered cat pocket to a red swim suit that became less than complimentary when wet. The memories of the girl dressed in red came alive as I wrote.

Colour is an important part of our lives. Like smell, colour can evoke amazing memories. Take hold of the colours of your past and watch the interesting texture develop as you thread the colours into your writing.

You may also enjoy reading:

The Girl Dressed in Red

The Story Behind the Photo – Memoir Writing Tips