Tag Archives: memory

The dream remembers

One night in January I remembered, in my dreams, holding my mother’s hand as she lay dying, the feel of her papery skin, and the growing distance in her eyes. The sound of her breathing as she laboured up that long hill, and the hope in my heart that she would soon see my father, waiting to greet her, on this day that would have been their 68th wedding anniversary.

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When I woke and wrote my dream down, I realised it was her birthday, the second one since she died. It hadn’t been in my waking thoughts, but my dream remembered, and this happens all the time. I dream about a person, and when I come to record it, I notice the date is some kind of anniversary.

It happens with death days too. In Writing in the House of Dreams I told the story of finding my sister Su’s poems and letters among the boxes in my shed after we sold the family home. They had been in the attic for years, and I’d forgotten I had them. I spent the whole day reading them, and then burnt them on a bonfire, thinking about Su. Wanting to make a note of a few things she had said to me before I forgot, I went to my journal, wrote down the date, and realised it was the anniversary of her death.

Even when we don’t consciously remember or mark an anniversary, it’s there in another level of consciousness. It may not emerge in a dream, but it may colour our mood, like an old stain; a drop of wine on a party tablecloth, a bruise on the heart. A friend once pointed out to me that every late September I seemed to have a dip – ‘Isn’t that the time your sister died?’ she said.

Family anniversaries are held in our own mind and they’re also held in the family’s collective consciousness, fixed points like pins holding down the billowing fabric of all the family’s stories.

Culturally, we create new ones, like World Book Day, Remembrance Sunday, the May Bank Holiday, and they become shared moments in the collective mind of all our various tribes – in these examples, book lovers, the UK and Commonwealth nations, workers and children.

The days that have meaning for us give resonance to the thin melody line of consciousness, because even if we forget what day it is, the dream remembers.

Have you ever dreamt or thought about a loved one and realised later that it’s some kind of anniversary?

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Diaries and the joy of remembering

This week, I’m delighted to welcome Julie Newman in the House of Dreams to talk about her diaries, as part of my occasional series of guest posts about personal writing. Julie has written a number of memoirs and nostalgia pieces for magazines including This England and Evergreen, and her diaries have proven to be a really useful resource.

I first met Julie in 2008 when she enrolled on my course, Finding Your Voice. She is currently working on an account of all the houses she has lived in. She still keeps a daily diary and attends various writing courses. She says creative writing has become something of an obsession!

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Julie Newman

I discovered my love of writing at secondary school, writing comic-strip stories for my friends to read in break-time. Then, as a teenager, I began to keep a diary. Now I have a cupboard full stretching across thirty years. 

My first little diary had a tartan cover. The year was 1966. One of the girls at work kept one and I decided it would be a good idea, mainly to record dates with boyfriends and different events.

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‘He’s lovely!’

This extended to writing about my feelings/teenage angst. One boyfriend in particular made a huge impression on me, so much so that he is the subject of my memoir ‘No One Comes Close’.

When we met up again it was 1987, twenty years after we had parted. I sent him a 40th birthday card, not knowing where he was living, but it found its way to him in Australia. I was unhappily married at the time. We met secretly in Trafalgar Square, while he was visiting his family. After two more meetings, I was overjoyed when he decided to come back to the UK and make his home here, with me. This was the catalyst for my divorce.

My diary-writing had lapsed in the intervening years but started again in earnest when my life took this unexpected turn. This time I recorded all my feelings, hoping to find answers as to why our relationship did not make it past the first post. He couldn’t find work and went back to Australia but we kept in touch.

I later remarried but never forgot him. I instinctively knew when he was visiting – a kind of spiritual pull – and would phone his mum, hoping to speak to him, which I managed to do on a number of occasions. This continued until his death in 2008.

I still have my little tartan diary. Last September was the 50th anniversary of our first meeting; I carefully thumbed through the pages, now spotted brown with age, and remembered all the times we met in London as if it were yesterday.

If you have enjoyed Julie’s contribution, please leave a comment.

If you would like to contribute yourself, email me author@jennyalexander.co.uk with about 600 words about your personal writing and a couple of photos.

I’ve got some cracking guest posts lined up for you already – I’m loving this series!

 

Writing your memoir: the perils and rewards

This Autumn I devised and taught my first memoir-writing evening course. I had included sessions on autobiographical writing in several of my general writing courses, but I wanted to do it over several weeks, with daily tasks people could do at home between sessions, so they could hold the focus and deepen the experience of writing about their own life if they wanted to.

Take-up for the course was so good that I was able to run two groups, and everyone in both groups engaged wholeheartedly with the adventure, even though it took them by surprise.

All kinds of writing can surprise you. In fiction, your imagination can take you places you didn’t expect, because venturing into imagination is venturing into the unknown. In poetry, symbolic resonances may emerge that you didn’t know were there, leapfrogging  the familiar trails of your rational mind across what Jung called the bridge of your emotions. Even non fiction can surprise you, both in revealing how much you know and how much you don’t know about your subject. It can challenge your assumptions.

But writing about your personal past can be particularly surprising, because memory is a story you live with every day, and you think it’s the whole story of your past.

Only memory isn’t history. It’s a construct of the story making mind. It’s a sifting and selecting of experience to construct a coherent narrative that can explain to us our present feelings and circumstances, based on the assumption of cause and effect.

This sifting and selecting means that much of our actual experience drops completely out of our awareness. Writing about the past can rediscover what has been lost, and some of what we find may not fit with our ideas about who we are and how we got to be this way at all.

Many people say ‘I had a happy childhood’ or ‘I had an unhappy childhood’, but actually writing into it, writing around it, using creative techniques to uncover authentic memories, means the person with the sunny childhood may recall darker moments, and the person with the unhappy childhood may remember happy ones.

Writing about your life is a bold adventure because a richer, broader and more nuanced awareness of the past means your ideas about yourself may need to grow to fit it, and that can be a very uncomfortable process.

Also, once started, this writing is just the beginning of a process. I had phone calls from several of the ‘Writing Your Life’ course participants two or three weeks after the last session, saying how their memory was continuing to open up; they were still remembering all sorts of forgotten things, and understanding the events and characters of their past in different ways.

The goal of some dreaming traditions is ‘to make life better.’ Through techniques such as dream incubation and lucid dreaming,  you can transform nightmares and make your dream life better, and in making your dream life better, you make your day life better too, because all that rich and positive experience becomes part of you, who you are and how you see yourself.

I think that in the same way that creative dreaming, through making your dream life better, makes your day life better too, memoir writing, through making your memories of the past richer and more satisfying, can make your experience of the present better too.

For me, this isn’t an incidental benefit; it’s the actual purpose of writing, in so many different ways, to make life better.

Have you ever done any memoir writing? Did what came up surprise you?