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Writing what you know
Writing what you know

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4 Memory and narrative

4.1 Using memories to order narrative

The philosopher John Locke made the assertion that individual identity is inextricably linked to memory – we are only what we remember being. Memory is a central part of how we think of ourselves, and indeed a central strand of what we might know. Memory is not simply a mechanical process. It works in various ways and you will use it in various ways in your writing. If you study A215 Creative writing, the Open University course from which this course was extracted, you will have the opportunity to think about how to make the most of associations from your memories. Part 4 of the course focuses on ‘Life Writing’; it looks in more detail at how memory works as a narrative, and how we tell ourselves stories about our past. It will be useful to start thinking about memory and narrative now, as your memories will be of use in your poetry and fiction, as well as in your life writing.

Part of what a story does is organise events in time, as Lee has done. Memory often works like this – even when you aren't intending to write your memories down but are simply thinking. So when you try to remember what you did yesterday you start perhaps by recalling some fragments – a conversation, having breakfast, going to the park. The more you think about the fragments, the more you are likely to arrange them in some sort of temporal order – like a story. I had breakfast first, then I went to the park and when I returned, that's when my mother rang. Thinking of memory as a form of narrative or story is a great asset when you come to your own writing. But it's important to consider your memories to be narratives that you can use freely. Don't feel that you have to render them exactly in an ‘as it really was’ fashion.

Activity 6

After reading the text below, click on the link supplied to read Lesley Glaister's ‘Memory: The true key to real imagining’. Look for the following things:

  • How is the memory realised and written about?

  • How is time organised in the memory?

  • In Glaister's version of this memory, what really brings it alive?

  • What use does Glaister make of her memory in her writing?

Click on the link below to open Lesley Glaister's ‘Memory: The true key to real imagining’.

Memory [Tip: hold Ctrl and click a link to open it in a new tab. (Hide tip)]


Notice how the memory is dramatised in the present tense, also how there is a shape to the telling of the memory, as if it were a fictional story with a starting point (father is invincible), a climax (father presumed dead) and a revelation (father is alive but flawed). Also note how the mix of precise detail and uncertainty (‘I don't know where – Southwold perhaps’) gives an authentic feel to the narration. Remember this in your own writing.

Also note that, according to this testimony, the content of the memory is only fleetingly used in Glaister's fiction. It is one small element, but something which is packed with resonance for her.