Writing To Remember

Writing about your personal experience is risky. You invite readers in, show them your life, and hope that they'll like what they find. Or, if they don't, that they'll at least tell you so gently. In the journal entry here, Jody describes this fear quite well. Later she came to talk to me about her paper. I hope she went away from our talk feeling relieved, not to mention alive.

Figuratively, at least, writers find ideas to write about in one of two places: inside or outside. The inside ideas come from people's own memories, imaginations, and insights, aspects of the self uniquely one's own. The outside ideas come from texts, people, objects, and events. (Never mind that what's inside was once out or that what's outside has to, at some point, come in.) To write about personal experience, writers go inside, retrieving impressions, images, and words buried somewhere in their memories; from these resources writers create personal narratives, informal essays, autobiographies, and a variety of personal manifestoes.

To write about something unfamiliar, where memory has no stock of stored information, writers must go elsewhere—to additional reading, fresh observation, or new research. From these resources stem much of the writing we call academic—term papers, critical essays, and the like— as well as most of the writing in the working world. Of course, categorizing all writing as either inside or outside is too simplistic. Many serious writers mix and match sources of information—some with greater abandon than others—so that few pieces of writing are strictly one category or the other.

Writers fill the gaps in their memories by reading newspapers, talking to other people, inventing dialogue, fabricating description, and revisiting places in which experiences occurred. Likewise, in writing research reports, authors may draw on remembered ideas, associations, events, current insights, as well as texts, interviews, and observations.

To further complicate the matter, some writers also search their minds to imagine and create what never happened or existed; we call this kind of writing imaginative, creative, fictive, or poetic. Poets and novelists, of course, are the greatest mixers and matchers of all, having poetic license to move freely from memory to library to imagination in a single page, paragraph, or sentence. The reader should note that while strictly imaginary writing is outside the scope of this book, the lines between the imagined and the remembered are often blurred.

A good example of the mix of inside/outside sources in a single essay can be found in one of Annie Dillard's short personal narratives, "Living Like Weasels,"* which is based on her encounter with a weasel in the woods. Look at the mix of sources she draws on in these six short samples taken within a few pages of one another:

*Teaching a Stone to Talk (New York: Harper & Row, 1982)

1. She leads with a statement and a question:

A weasel is wild. Who knows what he thinks?

2. She explains the context of the essay:

I have been reading about weasels because I saw one last week. I startled a weasel who startled me, and we exchanged a long glance.

3. She describes the weasel both literally and figuratively:

Weasel! I'd never seen one wild before. He was ten inches long, thin as a curve, a muscled ribbon, brown as fruitwood, soft-furred, alert.

4. She retells a story from a text about weasels.

And once, says Ernest Thompson Seton, once a man shot an eagle out of the sky. He examined the eagle and found the dry skull of a weasel fixed by the jaws to his throat. The supposition is that the eagle had pounced on the weasel and the weasel had swiveled and bit as instinct taught him, tooth to neck, and nearly won.

5. She questions and imagines on the basis of her reading:

I would like to have seen that eagle from the air a few weeks or months before he was shot: was the whole weasel still attached to his feathered throat, a fur pendant? Or did the eagle eat what he could reach, gutting the living weasel with his talons before his breast, bending his beak, cleaning the beautiful airborne bones?

6. She speculates about the meaning of life:

I think it would be well, and proper, and obedient, and pure, to grasp your one necessity and not let it go, to dangle from it limp wherever it takes you. . . . Seize it and let it seize you up aloft even, till your eyes burn out and drop; let your musky flesh fall off in shreds, and let your very bones unhinge and scatter, loosened over fields . . . from any height at all, from as high as eagles.

In rapid succession, the essay writer has wondered, explained, described, researched, questioned, imagined, and reflected about a single personal experience. In so doing, she has made that experience rich, multidimensional, and full of potential meaning about herself, the weasel, and the world.

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