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Memory changes and the writer as witness (First in writers and memory series)

Like Scott Fitzgerald's "the rich", memoir writers differ from other writers. Memoirs are both based on facts and subjective. Behind the craft and language skills that distinguish the best memoirs are the genre claims: "I was there and this is what happened to me because I was there."

Neuroscientist Karim Nader's provocative research suggests that memories change every time we examine them. Even the heroine of CBS's Unforgettable TV series, revisits memories to see what she didn't notice the first time around or to extend the memories beyond what she's already recalled.

James Pennebaker's research on writing and healing shows physical health benefits lasting up to six months from as few as four brief sessions writing about painful memories.

In Pennebaker's view, the mind processes memories in order to understand, and translating memories into language makes them more accessible and understandable.

Memoirs depend on memories, both factual and emotional. Some memories can be verified independently, but emotional recall is subjective, personal, and apparently subject to change.

How does a writer protect valuable memories in order to work with them and still return to them to shape them into narrative? And how does a writer work repeatedly with memories without destroying their value as a personal and professional resource?

This is the first of a series of articles examining ways writers can work with memories effectively.

The first tool for a writer staking out her personal memories is a journal, either handwritten or in a designated computer file. One of the simplest ways to capture raw memories was the basis for Natalie Goldberg's seminal work on journaling, Writing Down the Bones.

Start by dating your entry, then write "I remember...." and continue writing, keeping your hand moving across the page or your fingers moving on the keyboard, until the memory completes itself. Sometimes it's useful to begin with "I don't remember...." or "The first time...." or "The last time...."

If you are working on a computer, it may help to turn off the monitor to prevent editing as you write. Punctuation, grammar, and spelling are irrelevant at this gathering stage.

Save a copy of the original draft, which contains your original recall of the material.

Later, you may return to specific words or images and begin a fresh writing session. Or you may return to an entry, add a new date, and continue your narrative.

Retaining copies of all your dated freewriting sessions will make it easy to read through your writings to see how the memories have expanded and changed over time.


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