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Searching for the Forgotten: Recalling Details When Writing a Memoir

Writing a memoir means searching for what one has forgotten. It is easy enough to remember the larger outline of a time that has passed, but it is regrettably impossible to recall the minutiae that capture the very essence of that former experience. Here's what you can do to call upon that forgotten inspiration.

by Ann C. Colley

Writing a memoir means searching for what one has forgotten. It is easy enough to remember the larger outline of a time that has passed, but it is regrettably impossible to recall the minutiae that capture the very essence of that former experience. Without these particulars, the memoir falls flat, for it fails to dwell upon those fleeting and seemingly insignificant moments that paradoxically capture the substance of what one is trying to replicate.

When William Wordsworth, the nineteenth-century Romantic poet, was writing a memoir, he recognized this reality. In his autobiographical poem, The Prelude, he chose to isolate and assemble the little, unremembered acts from his past, what he called those “spots in time,” so he could depict the growth of his poetic mind. These helped capture the kernel of his being.

There are in our existence spots of time,

Which with distinct preeminence retain

A renovating Virtue …

– Wordsworth, The Prelude.

Evoking Wordsworth’s sensibility when composing my recent The Odyssey and Dr. Novak: A Memoir (2018), I knew I also needed to recollect the seemingly insignificant and fleeting moments that had attended and shaped my residence in Eastern Europe twenty years ago. Without these passing minutiae, the memoir would not be convincing and would not properly represent the reality of being there.

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But it was not easy. Why did I try? What compelled me? First, I wanted to avoid the stultifying sterility of hollow generalizations that too often oppress memory, but more to the point I wanted to retrieve and replicate the flavor of my life in that part of the world so that a reader could actually be at my side and partake in my consciousness. I desired to revivify a time that had temporarily taken me out of my comfort zone in 1995 and 2000.

If I had not kept the detailed letters, which I sent home every two weeks, much of what I had experienced in Poland, Ukraine, and Belarus would have been lost—forgotten. The small, fleeting moments that assemble to portray and create the flavor of existence, especially, would have slipped away. Thanks to this archive, however, I was able to retrieve/resurrect/relive the complexities and particulars of a life lived over two decades ago. I could now write in a way that was convincing and still very much at hand. Fortunately, minute details in the correspondence reminded me of the past, yet, paradoxically, eradicated time by bringing a former period more directly into a sentient present.

Through a letter’s particulars, I was reminded of and relived the painful sensations of frost and isolation during a freezing winter in Poland. These feelings more than any larger event are what capture the experience of my being there. A passage in one letter speaks of an icy evening in Warsaw. Its particulars revive the feeling not only of being cold but also of being cut off and alone:

The snow is still blowing around me when I get off tram 36 this evening. As I walk away from the stop, the tram’s overhead wires momentarily burst into electric blue and for a few second all of us move visibly toward our destinations. Inside the apartment, I look out of the narrow kitchen window into the frigid darkness and across to a single lit window …. All the other apertures are as dark as night. Inside this suspended illuminated space, two officers play table tennis to pass the time. Their bright darting movements in the coldness of the late evening are mesmerizing and reassuring.

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Because I knew little Polish and occasionally felt isolated, I found solace in looking at the natural world. Details in another missive resuscitate a state of mind that might otherwise have been cast aside by the forgetfulness of time.

Outside the Hotel Sokrates, gray-beaked ravens strut about the frozen ground and grope among the dead leaves for whatever they can forage. It is a difficult winter for them too. Each morning, I bring them bread that we have not finished. I throw it over the barbed-wire fence surrounding the nearby military compound. Waiting up in the trees, they fly down, floating, swooping, and dropping like abandoned cloth handkerchiefs conversing with the currents in the air.

Later while reading a letter from Gdansk on the Baltic coast, I was again in touch with how the cold pervaded everything. The details of my passing attention to the wildfowl (this “spot of time” I had long forgotten) once more revealed my sense of isolation:

The ice packs in layers upon itself and seems even to freeze the facades of the area’s tall, fourteenth-century Hanseatic League dwellings. The wind howls through the old city gates. In an open spot below a footbridge over an inlet, coots, mallards, and swans collect and wait for people to bring them crumbs. The coots stretch their rounded webbed feet, the mallards stand or crouch, and the swans tread clumsily on the ice. Only when they fly and extend their long, graceful necks do they regain their dignity. When they pass directly overhead, I hear their wings rhythmically swishing up and down and listen to the subdued sounds gurgling deep in their throats. Long gone and far from fantasy are the prewar summer days….

Letters I wrote from Ukraine in 2000 played a similar role. They resurrected minutiae, long deleted from memory. How else might I once more vividly see the figure of Yelena, my next-door neighbor if I had not described her shuffling feet and her generous body held together by an apron, smeared with a lifetime of cooking? Her presence became even more vibrant when one missive recalled her showing me her apartment and taking me into her kitchen where a pet yellow finch is out of its cage and pecking away at a loaf of bread, and then, with great pride, her leading me into a large bedroom dominated by an equally large pink satin-covered bed on which she has arranged her dolls for me to admire. Such details, if not written down, would long have abandoned memory and left one helpless to capture the flavor of a person and a time.

Writing a memoir is a composite, a collage, of minutiae that escape the forgetfulness of memory.

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Ann C. Colley is the author of The Odyssey and Dr. Novak. She is a SUNY Distinguished Professor at the State University College of New York in Buffalo. She has written extensively on nineteenth-century British literature and culture and has published with presses including Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich, the University of Georgia Press, Macmillan, Ashgate, Palgrave, and the Cambridge University Press. She has taught abroad on Fulbright Fellowships in Poland and Ukraine. With Irving Massey she has traveled throughout South America, Central America, Nepal, Turkey, Morocco, Africa, Cape Verde, New Zealand, Armenia, Belarus, Hungary, the Soviet Union, Czechoslovakia, Poland, and Ukraine. Always nostalgic for the landscape of home, she often returns to England, where she spent the first thirteen years of her life. In the summers she lives in the wilderness of Nova Scotia.

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