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Writing what you know
Writing what you know

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4.2 Raiding your past

The more you write, the more you will raid your own past. These incursions won't diminish or reduce your memories – rather those recollections can be enriched and become more fully realised. As Jamaica Kincaid says of her writing:

One of the things I found when I began to write was that writing exactly what happened had a limited amount of power for me. To say exactly what happened was less than what I knew happened.

(in Perry, 1993, p. 129)

Writing using your memories can amount to more than just reciting the facts. If you take A215 Creative Writing, you will look at a Jamaica Kincaid story in Part 2, the ‘Writing fiction’ section, and can then consider what her particular mix of fiction and autobiography might look like. For now, it's important to realise that you will not betray the truth of any particular memory by failing to stick steadfastly to certain details, or by changing elements, or by not having a total recall of events.

There may be times when you will wish to use episodes or elements from your life experience more or less directly. Often you will use just fragments of your own past. You might like to use a single aspect of a character, or a place, for instance. You might like to use a turn of phrase that your grandmother used; you might focus on the feelings of being lost on the first day at a new school. There is no rule for how much or how little you can use.

Activity 7

Using the present tense, like Glaister does, write about a personal memory of either a place or a character in your notebook.

Make it brief, 250 words or so, but try to get as many sensory perceptions as possible going, and try to fix the memory in time, as Glaister does, so it is just one moment. Include everyday details and don't be afraid to admit one or two uncertainties.


This activity doesn't ask you to change anything from the way you remembered it, but you might have found yourself inventing things – some sensory perceptions, for instance. It is impossible to notice every little detail about an event or moment, let alone be able to recall such detail from the past. It is inevitable that you will invent even in this limited exercise. That invention should be welcomed, not resisted; it will always be guided by what you do know about the event.