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Memory

One of the major tools of good writ­ing is mem­o­ry. Of course, we all observe things, but retain­ing those obser­va­tions, and using them when you write is a key to bring­ing your char­ac­ters and sit­u­a­tions to life for read­ers. And for the writer. 

To quote John Updike: “Mem­o­ries, impres­sions, and emo­tions from the first 20 years on earth are most writ­ers’ main mate­r­i­al; lit­tle that comes after­ward is quite so rich and resonant.” 

memory

You might recall Louise Fitzhugh’s Har­ri­et the Spy. It’s almost a primer on what a writer should do—observe—and write—along with some of the com­plex results. 

Read­ers often ask me—as I know they ask oth­er writers—if my char­ac­ters are based on real peo­ple. Oth­er authors may have dif­fer­ent answers than mine, but my easy answer is “no.” Yet, that’s not real­ly the full truth. Thus, the phys­i­cal char­ac­ter­is­tics of Bear in Crispin were based on some­one I knew—but I knew him only enough to describe him. There is noth­ing about what lit­tle I knew about this man’s per­son­al­i­ty in the book. 

The open­ing of A Place Called Ugly, is based on a moment when one of my sons was talk­ing about his dis­taste for return­ing to school after a sum­mer vaca­tion on the shore. But the char­ac­ter in the book—or the plot—is in no way like my son or what he ever did. 

The plot cir­cum­stance of Some­times I Think I Hear My Name was derived from sto­ries I heard from one of my kid’s friends. 

Catch You Lat­er, Trai­tor is full of the sights and sounds of my boy­hood neigh­bor­hood and mem­o­ries of the polit­i­cal ten­sions of the 1950s. But the basic fam­i­ly sto­ry is not about my fam­i­ly, but is, in a major way, about the life of some­one I once knew and remembered. 

When you write, at any giv­en plot moment, you are try­ing to decide what a char­ac­ter might say or do. When you do decide it is based—consciously or not—on what you have observed and remem­ber. The more you have engaged with peo­ple, the more you have—and will—draw upon what you remember. 

As Hen­ry James said, “The artist is present in every page of every book from which he sought so assid­u­ous­ly to elim­i­nate himself.” 

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