StreetWrites writers workshop presents information and examples on 
using concrete detail in writing.

I Remember ...

There are many ways to start writing. One exercise often used in local Seattle workshops is "I remember ..." It is used in the "speedwriting" format: just start with "I remember ..." write anything that occurs to you as it occurs to you, keep writing until you run out, start with "I remember ..." again, keep writing.

In this Primer I'm just discussing a variant of that, an approach I've used to write about very emotionally loaded memories. I'm going to use my Family Cycle poems as examples. I suspect that the approach I've learned is similar to things that others of you use, because I've seen poems from a number of you dealing with very powerful memories and traumas. As points out in Right to Write, our lives give us drama to write about -- the trick is to keep the drama on the page.

Several years ago, I was describing an incident in my mother's life to a friend of mine, who is also a poet. He said, rather predictably, "You should write a poem about that." I went home, took out pencil and paper, and sat there "editing myself silent." I was trying very hard to think of appropriate metaphors and images, phrases, structure ... This particular incident wasn't traumatic or emotionally loaded in itself, but it had enough issues around it that I was tying myself into knots over it. Finally I told myself, "Okay, I'm not going to write the poem right now. I'm just going to write *about* the poem. I'm going to describe the incident just as it happened, then I'll go back and translate it into poetic imagery."

Can you guess what happened? I wrote down the incident in one rush, read it back over -- and realized I already had the poem. Yes, I tweaked a few words here and there, but I *always* do that. The basic poem was written.

from Mother Escapes

She tore her down pillow open with her teeth
blew handfulls of soft white feathers under the door
and yelled "Fire! Fire!"
An orderly actually came.
He threw the door open.
Faster than a naked toddler Mother zipped under his arm ...

I wrote a couple of poems about my grandfather the same way, but my feelings about my grandfather are mainly positive. I never even wanted to write a poem about my father, but on Father's Day 1996, when I sat down to "just write anything, for Father's Day" I succeeded in expressing *why* I didn't want to write about Dad, just by letting individual "snapshot" memories pour out:

from Father's Day 1996

Do you still fire off that miniature cannon every Fourth of July?
Do you still drink a half-gallon of wine before bedtime?
Do you still leer at teenaged daughters
who are still standing there, frozen,
who still don't know how to react?

For years I wanted to write a poem about my sister Adrienne, about my mingled feelings of admiration and resentment, love and anger. I even had an image to center the poem around -- my sister's hands, symbols of her capability and her fatal disease, her generosity and her intolerance. But every time I started to write, I choked. One day after a wonderful workshop down in Auburn in which we practiced "speedwriting", I sat down in a bookstore with a pot of tea and just wrote. I filled up three pages, and then just edited it down by cutting out everything that wasn't the poem.

from Speaking with Hands

When she was fourteen she had lengthened out
to Mother's thin and concentrated height;
to prove she was not Mother
her long thin hands were always straightening
books on shelves, pictures on walls,
silverware on the table, the collar of my blouse,
the seam of her jeans as she sat;
she would put order into her world.

My feelings about my brothers are far more complex than about my sister. Recently, though, I managed to finally write about one of my brothers by using the same technique of writing down visual memories as they came to me, then stringing them together.

from Gregor

Gregor was five
the year Mother started screaming to her boyfriend
that the transformers outside the window
were going to explode
because demons were coming over the electric wires
I remember his small mute face in Dad's back room
owl eyes peeking out of neglected darkness
I remember his small pale face at Grandmother's house
but I can't remember the smell of innocence and comfort
any more


This isn't a form exercise. It is a technique which may be useful in writing about emotionally loaded memories. If you have any subject or person in your life that you "choke up" on when you try to write about in a poem, try speedwritng individual memories, "snapshots", as they come to you, without forcing them into any form. Edit them as you wish later, after letting the notes lay for a bit. Share the results with the list if you wish.


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