Oscar Wilde wrote that “[m]emory…is the diary we all carry about with us.” Our memories are some of the strongest forces in our creative lives. They can shape plots, characters, scenes, topics, themes, anything we want to produce.
Before I get too heavily in tying memory to writing, I want to tell a little story. Around the holidays, my family goes all out with the Christmas decorations. It’s my mother’s favorite holiday, and my father, with all his husbandly largesse, allows her to turn our house into a wonderland of holiday glamor. Luxurious trees with hand-painted ornaments. Nutcrackers from Germany. Wreaths made of just ornaments that my mom created by hand. My dad just lets her have her fun.
But one year, my dad came up with his own idea for holiday décor. He told us a story–a memory–from his childhood. My father grew up without much money. You could call them poor. His family didn’t have running water until he was eighteen. They lived in a tiny house on the outskirts of Inyokern. So holiday decorations were in short supply. Dad told us how his mom brought him and his siblings strips of red and green, and they would spend their time creating paper chains to decorate for the holidays. He and his brothers and sisters would work together to create feet of chain that they would loop around their little house. My grandmother would get crepe-paper bells to hang with the chains to complete the look. It was so simple, so modest, so tied to his family and what they had to do to bring even a scrap of holiday magic to their home.
So that year, we got out some strips of paper and started making paper chains to decorate the house. My father was glowing with pride. He wanted it to be something special he did with his wife and kids. I’m even took some supplies when I visited my sister in Sacramento for Thanksgiving so she had a chance to make some paper chains for our Christmas. Because that’s what families do.
Why did I tell you this story? Because it’s a beautiful and special memory. Because it sticks out as a memory with life behind it. Because the story possibilities blossom from it. Can’t you see how a detail like that, plucked from your own past, can make a story, a character, a scene glow that much brighter? It’s honest and pure. Even my wildest, most epic, most fantastical flights of fancy in my work can’t hold up to the simple power of that memory. Finding ways to weave details from your past, however small, into your writing just makes it so much stronger. It creates realism. It makes your work far more personal and uniquely you.
At this memory-making time of year, look about your family and friends and listen to their stories, their memories. Listen to the ones that touch your heart and spark your imagination the most. And pay attention to the memories you’ll be making. You never know what may end up in your story one day.