Stealing Time and Mining Material

Memory Triggers

By Elizabeth Cutright
© 2012 The Daily Creative Writer

The scent of fallen pine needles cooking under a summer sun.

Stretching my hands up over my head on a lazy Sunday morning.

The guitar riff in Chris Isaak’s “Graduation Day.”

These are some of my memory triggers – benign and, perhaps, banal little moments that bring up the past in sharp relief.  Suddenly, I’m back at summer camp, surrounded by girl scouts in the sequoias.  Or I’m reminded of the last weekend spent with a transient lover, the long goodbye in a room with scented candles.  Or I’m staring out the window of my little bedsit at Trinity College on that first morning in Dublin, filled again with the dread and anticipation of a new adventure in a foreign city.

At the start of the year, one of the goals I set out for myself was to read one poem a day.  I hoped not only to expand my knowledge and repertoire, but it seemed to me that reading the masters could only elevate my own work.

Plus, I can’t deny that I am a fan of sonnets and iambic pentameter. I love reading a phrase or couplet; words tumbling down in perfect harmony and rhythm.  Oh to write like that! To see the world through those eyes!  I’m a dabbler in poetry – it helps me organize my thoughts and channel my urge to write pages and pages of descriptive prose – but these experts at once inspire and enlighten.  So many ways to depict a scene or communicate a feeling – the poets never cease to surprise and amaze me.

Some of my favorite catchphrases since starting this exercise:

  • On the season’s turn to spring: The year has changed his mantle cold/of wind, of rain, of bitter air;/ And he goes clad in cloth of gold,/ of laughing suns and seasons fair.
  • On wine and religion” But let’s drink up a toast to Apollo or Pan, or offer a prayer to Zeus for the king,/ Though I’ll miss out the prayer if you like old man/ As for me, I say, the drink is the thing.
  • On lost love: “And when she took it from me she left me naught/ save desiring and a yearning heart.”
  • On true love: “Journeys end in lovers meeting.”
  • On female empowerment: “Beware Beware/ I rise with my red hair/ And I eat men like air.”
  • On censorship: “Art tongue-tied by authority.”
  • On writer’s block: “For me, who, wandering with pedestrian muses.”
  • On environmentalism: “Woe for the fall of the glorious tree.”

But it was today’s poem – “Under the Waterfall” by Thomas Hardy – that got me thinking about how a present moment can trigger memory and plunge you right back into the past; all of the smells, sounds, sights and feelings immediate and tangible. It can be a pleasant sensation – the smell of a certain body lotion will always take me back to my trip through Spain – but it can be disconcerting if the memory is particularly painful.  Hurt, anger, shame, despair – they are all accessible as well, and that can be uncomfortable – especially if it’s something from the past that you thought felt was resolved and forgotten.

In Hardy’s poem, the act of plunging an arm into a pool of cold water reminds the narrator of a happy day spent with her lover.  While picnicking in a meadow, the couple sips wine from a goblet that falls into a bottomless well.  They try and try to retrieve the vessel, plunging their arms into the cool water and reaching into the depths of the spring.  But the cup is gone, and whenever the narrator thrusts his arm into cold water, he’s brought back to that happy afternoon.

Whenever I plunge my arm, like this
In a basin of water, I never miss
The sweet sharp sense of a fugitive day
Fetched back from its thickening shroud of gray.

Hardy mined his recalled memory for material, and that’s a tip worth acting on.  The next time your find yourself in a time portal – reliving a junior high dance or recalling the first time you saw the love of your life (or lost the love of your life) – take a moment to write it all out.  How old were you?  Where were you?  What were you wearing, eating or drinking?  Were you sad or happy?  How has the event changed in your mind with the passage of time?  Do you still interpret it as you did at the time, or do you have a new perspective?

You never know where this exercise might lead you.  You could end up with a preliminary character study.  Or a poem of your own.  Maybe you’ll hash out the plot to a new short story or haphazardly happen upon the perfect resolution to your novel.  Maybe a travelogue will blossom out of the smell of bread that recalls your first morning in Paris.

You are your greatest resource when it comes to material, use the memory triggers as a way to mine your own field of diamonds.

And as I said, if I thrust my arm below
Cold water in a basin or a bowl, a throe
From the past awakens a sense of that time,
And the glass we used, and the cascade’s rhyme.
The basin seems the pool, and its edge
The hard smooth face of the brook-side ledge,
And the leafy pattern of chine-ware
The hanging plants that were bathing there.

By night, by day, when it shines or lours,
There lies in tact that chalice of ours,
And its presence adds to the rhyme of love
Persistently sung by the fall above.
No lip has touched it since his and mine
In turns therefrom sipped lover’s wine.

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