Writing Right with Dmitri: Re-Purposing Memory
It's fall, and you're probably putting away the summer furniture. You might see all that junk in the attic or garage, and think, 'Hm, time to do a bit of cleaning.' Now, you'll find a lot of old stuff you don't use any more. If you're like most people, you'll either:
- Put it in the trash.
- Take it to the charity shop.
- Dust if off and have a yard sale.
- Decide to use it for some other purpose.
That last option is interesting. When I was a kid, re-purposing old paraphernalia was all the rage with my parents' set. Do you remember those flatirons Lara was using in Doctor Zhivago? I was fascinated by Julie Christie thumping those sheets. You see, we had a couple of those things at my house. Of course, they were now used as doorstops.
Milk cans were a big item. You got one from a farmer, blasted the rust off, then spray-painted it and stuck on a decal. (Patriotic themes were popular.) My mom used hers as an umbrella stand. It stood next to the large houseplant in the entry.
All over the suburbs, former necessities of rural existence were being re-purposed as decorative household items. Pitcher-and-bowl ensembles adorned guest bedrooms, although the guests knew the house had running water now. Old butter churns held floral arrangements. That chamber pot? Made a nice outdoor planter.
What about the bric-a-brac in your head? Can you do anything with it, or should you take it to the yard sale? Are you kidding? Slap a decal on those memories, and put 'em to work. I'll give you a few steps to follow.
The Method-Acting Method
Step One: Retrieve your memory from storage. Pick a quiet time. Wait until the dustmen have gone away. Now, sit peacefully over your morning coffee/tea and let your mind wander. Pretty soon, a stray memory will appear. Let it.
Step Two: Let the memory unfold. Try for as much detail as you can recall. Was your granny wearing an apron? What shoes was she wearing? (If she was my granny, she wasn't wearing any.) Savour the visuals, inhale the smells. Let it happen.
Step Three: Ask yourself: What does this memory mean to me? Would it mean anything to anyone else? If I were telling it to someone else, how would I make the story interesting to them? Take your time.
Step Four: Now take yourself out of the equation. Imagine that this event happened to someone else. What might it mean to them? How would you tell about it? What point of view do you need?
Step Five: Now, ask yourself what else might have happened. Sure, you know Aunt Nan's mason jars exploded all over the cellar, and she blamed Aunt Mary for deliberately telling her the wrong date to put up kraut, just to teach her 'not to be so superstitious'. But what if something worse had happened? Suppose an evil kraut demon had emerged from the mess of fermented cabbage, babbling in an unknown tongue? What then?
You don't have to get so melodramatic. You could just imagine Aunt Mary's preacher made her feel guilty for being holier-than-thou about the Southern Farmer's Almanac. But once you've got to Step Five, you're ready to re-purpose your memory.
A few evenings ago, we sat down to watch a (very bad!) movie about a dybbuk. Do not watch this movie. It was incredibly boring, even though Kyra Sedgwick was cool, as usual. I only put it on because it was 'based on a true story'. Okay, that turned out to be mostly a lie, but I did discover that someone foolish had once sold a box with Hebrew writing on it on eBay, with the claim that it contained a dybbuk – an Eastern European evil spirit. Putting them into boxes is basically a psychic pest control issue, which is why the movie was so boring.
You can be pretty sure the scriptwriter re-purposed a few memories in there. After all, the story concerns divorce, child custody issues, yard sales, and dealing with the ex's annoying new boyfriend. I'm suspecting the somewhat whiny behaviour of the daughter – before she got possessed by a dybbuk – came straight from personal experience.
When you write your next story, why not put those old memories in your head to work? After all, they're not paying rent in there.
PS: If you want a good movie about a dybbuk, rent The Dybbuk, an early talkie in Yiddish. The OTT acting is hilarious. When the Rebbe explains, 'Dos is a DYYYY-buk', you're sure Stephen Spielberg is green with envy. To 1937 filmgoers, this cinematic treat conjured up – pardon the expression – lots of childhood memories.