Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Memory and Writing Fiction

Scott Bury grabs the mic today with a guest piece about memory. Thanks Scott!

As I’m writing this, it’s July 31, 2012. I remember this day exactly 47 years ago.

On that warm, sunny Winnipeg summer day, I was standing on the front steps of my parents’ home. My father was sitting on the top step in front of me, and around me were some other kids from the neighbourhood.

I cannot remember what the conversation was about, but I can remember that at one point, I said, “today is the first day of August.” I remember feeling that I was kind of going out on a limb; I remember not being sure that what I said was true.

“Not quite,” my father said. “Tomorrow is August first.”

And I can remember, strangely enough, feeling pretty good about that—about being close to knowing the date, because I was sure that none of the other kids there had any clue what the date was. I can remember at least one of them being surprised that I was as close as I was. After all, even a grown-up could err on the date by one day, right?

I was four at the time (now you know my age). There were no cell phones to check the date and time on. Phones then were heavy, clunky black things tethered to the wall by stout wires, or screwed to it in the kitchen. Actually, every family I knew had only one phone.

That’s one of my earliest memories. JD asked me to write about my earliest memory, and how it informs my writing.

I remember the white stucco house with the blue wooden trim. The front yard seemed as wide as a park, and I remember the oak tree as immense, with a canopy that gave enough shade for family picnics.

I don’t know whether this memory directly informs my writing. But I have always loved blue-and-white houses, and I was immediately taken with Cycladean architecture when I saw pictures of it during high school.

But there is one lesson I think we can draw from this. Think of your own favourite memories. They’re probably not about big, dramatic events. They’re probably of quieter moments with your families, when you’re not doing anything in particular. No one says anything life-changing.

If there is something about this memory that has any effect in my writing, it’s that. People don’t usually speak in full sentences, and what they say does not seem memorable, at first. And yet, that’s what we do remember. At least, I do.

This is where I find a lot of fiction writers go wrong. They try to pack so much into dialogue that it sounds false. Listen to some of the everyday conversations around you. People almost never speak in full sentences, they make mistakes all the time, they start sentences, change their mind part-way through, backtrack part way and substitute words. And if you ever tried to re-create the funniest, most enjoyable, laughter-filled conversation you ever had on paper, it probably came out as gibberish. This is one reason Obama sounds so different from most other people: his words are carefully crafted. This is why most politicians sound false: they’ve prepared what they say.

I know that stumbling speech with little import makes for bad reading. But still, I remember those quiet times and those gentle conversations, and to me, they’re the most real memories I have.

Scott Bury is a journalist, editor and author based in Ottawa, Canada. His first published novel is The Bones of the Earth, available on Amazon. You can follow his blog at

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