I’ve been reflecting on using memories in my journal lately. This is not something I tend to do readily. I don’t like remembering, mainly because I have a lot of painful memories that I don’t like to revisit. Some people had happy childhoods that they like to relive. I didn’t. I’m always put off when writers encourage their students to draw on their childhoods for material:
“Start with your childhood, I tell them. Plug your nose and jump in, and write down all your memories as truthfully as you can. Flannery O’Connor said that anyone who survived childhood has enough material to write for the rest of his or her life. Maybe your childhood was grim and horrible, but grim and horrible is Okay if it is well done. Don’t worry about doing it well yet, though. Just start getting it down.”
That’s all very well, but what if you are not in a mental place where you can face your grim and horrible childhood? And yes, I know I am always ranting on about how creativity heals, but you need to be ready to make that leap, and I’m just not there yet.
What to do?
Well, I’ve been reading a brilliant biography of Virginia Woolf lately, (rereading actually) and its discussion of her reading methods prompted me to think about my own education. And remember.
Musing in my diary, I found memories I felt I could allow myself to revisit. I recalled how I set out to ‘spend three years reading’ – somewhat as Woolf intended to ‘read myself blue in the nose’ – when I embarked on my English and American Studies degree. I wanted the world of literature to open up to me. I wanted to bask in all its wondrous variety, from Spencer’s ‘Faerie Queen’, Alexander Pope’s satire, through the invention of the novel, to the Modernism of Woolf, Joyce and Eliot. I wanted to gulp down Byron and wallow in Shelly. I wanted to lose myself in Fitzgerald, Whitman, Hemingway, the Brontës and George Eliot. I wanted to read The Greats. In short, I wanted a ‘proper’ literary education.
What I got was an itinerary of a book per week for each course, three courses running over three eight week terms per year, for three years. And to about 70% of these books, a 50 minute seminar was allotted.
(Perhaps I was naive. No, scratch that. I was definitely naive!)
I remembered not the luxury of three years reading, when I looked back, nor even any real reflections on the books I actually read. It was on this course that I first read Woolf for example, her ground-breaking novel ‘The Waves’ in fact, but I don’t remember what I thought about it. I don’t remember if it moved me, or if I found it difficult. I remember no opinion of it from that time at all. I was too fixated on ploughing through every volume on the booklist, and how I could bluff my way through the seminar if I hadn’t managed to finish each.
I’m not a fast reader either. This scorching schedule of novel after novel, of play after poetry collection after essay collection, left me reeling. I could barely keep up, let alone reflect and absorb. Mainly my memories of this time comprise of the tyranny of the seminar programme, of grinding through every book, and hating the labour instead of loving the words and stories and imagery.
For me as a writer, this memory, or rather the understanding of an absence of memory, is an important one to explore. I was fortunate enough to have an education, but somehow, I kind of blinked and missed it. The lesson I drew as I wrote of my disappointment in my diary is that I will take the memory into the future with me, and use it to inform my future reading. I will never finish a book again without forming my own clear opinion of it – and writing it down. By finding my way back to a memory, I can change my reading practise in the future. And that change will inform my writing. Which is a good reason for reaching back to find this memory.
Using memories in your diary doesn’t have to be a process of self-flagellation. Or at least, not if you don’t want it to be.
You don’t have to write pages in your own blood. You can write down your happiest memories, or the most instructive ones, or you can choose not to use memories at all. Exploring the past can be a useful exercise. It can be a healing exercise, but tacking painful times should only be done when you are ready, and not before. Don’t force yourself.
Instead, write about memories as they occur to you, and explore why they have come up at that particular moment. Yes, record them as vividly as you can, if you can. Find instruction in them. And if the time is right, exorcise your ghosts. But not every entry has to be a process of emotional flaying.