Writing Right with Dmitri: Play Me a Memory
Son, can you play me a memory?
I'm not really sure how it goes
But it's sad and it's sweet and I knew it complete
When I wore a younger man's clothes.
Billy Joel, 'Piano Man'
What do you remember most about your childhood, or youth, or those two years you spent in a Tibetan monastery? Are you one of those who survey the past with rose-tinted glasses? Or do remembrances of past sufferings cloud your backward view? Let's face it: it's hard to be objective about the past.
Somehow the people who made tennis shoes knew what boys needed and wanted. They put marshmallows and coiled springs in the soles and they wove the rest out of
grasses bleached and fired in the wilderness. Somewhere deep in the soft loam of the
shoes the thin hard sinews of the buck deer were hidden. The people that made the shoes
must have watched a lot of winds blow the trees and a lot of rivers going down to the
lakes. Whatever it was, it was in the shoes, and it was summer.
Ray Bradbury, 'The Sound of Summer Running'
This piece of memory writing is both good and bad at the same time. It is good because Bradbury has managed to illustrate how a kid of his time and place could invest a pair of canvas shoes with so much meaning and affect. It's bad because he's kind of overidentifying. It's as if thinking about the tennis shoes takes him back in time so hard that he's suddenly thinking like a kid, but with an adult's vocabulary. I think that's why we mentally pull back from this paragraph, and why we're inclined to read it resistantly. Otherwise, it's a pretty good illustration of what I wanted to show you, which is how to play someone a memory.
There is more than one way to 'play a memory'. You could take some ironic distance – pretend the kid or younger person you're talking about is not you. That works. Or make fun of yourself: that works, too.
I do not remember my first lie, it is too far back; but I remember my second one very well. I was nine days old at the time, and had noticed that if a pin was sticking in me and I advertised it in the usual fashion, I was lovingly petted and coddled and pitied in a most agreeable way and got a ration between meals besides.
It was human nature to want to get these riches, and I fell. I lied about the pin – advertising one when there wasn’t any. You would have done it; George Washington did it, anybody would have done it. During the first half of my life I never knew a child that was able to rise above that temptation and keep from telling that lie. Up to 1867 all the civilised children that were ever born into the world were liars – including George. Then the safety-pin came in and blocked the game.
Mark Twain, 'My First Lie'
Not only is this funny, but it universalises experience in a way that Bradbury's tennis-shoe description does not. It includes all readers in the very human state of being babies – possibly sneaky ones, too. It's a good trick of Twain's. We can make a note to steal it.
By and large, self-irony is a good way to go when serving up memories. It's also useful to be a bit critical, or at least self-analytical:
For the first time in my life, which had for years been sometimes witlessly gregarious, I discovered the pain of unwanted solitude. Like a felon suddenly thrown into solitary confinement, I found myself feeding off the unburned fat of inward resources I barely knew I possessed.
William Styron, Sophie's Choice
It's a telling point about Styron's novel that he didn't choose to use an omniscient narrator. Instead, he chose a younger version of himself – and one who isn't particularly inspiring or noble. It actually helps that difficult story to get across its message, which has a lot to do with human failure in the face of historical horror.
One problem we all face when we tell memories is that when we experienced them, we were different people. The William Styron who wrote Sophie's Choice was not the immature wannabe novelist of the story. Mark Twain's baby was not the cigar-chomping storyteller. The writers have built in ironic distance to their younger selves.
I would argue that Bradbury had little or no ironic distance in that first excerpt, which is why I think it doesn't work as well. How do I know? Well, when I started thinking about writing a few words on this topic, my memory flashed back to 'that Ray Bradbury story about the tennis shoes' as a negative example. I googled 'Ray Bradbury tennis shoes', and had the story in no time.
I hadn't read that Ray Bradbury story since sometime in the mid-1960s. I have a very clear mental image of reading that particular Bradbury anthology while sitting on the swing in the backyard. I was being as still as possible while sneaking glances at the elbow bend in the drainpipe. That's where our friend the robin had a nest that spring. We were trying to catch a glimpse of the babies without disturbing mom and dad, and the backyard swing turned out to be an acceptable distance from the drainpipe. So I spent some time there, reading.
I have fond memories of that robin: 'he' hung around our yard every spring and summer, although this was the only time 'he' had built a nest. To be honest, we had no idea if 'our' robin was the male or the female in the enterprise. When not engaged in making baby robins, our robin teased my dad by perching on his garden hose while he was watering, or watched television with us by peering in the sliding doors.
We were thrilled with the opportunity to observe the nesting process. We cheered (quietly) at every stage, from construction to egg-laying to open-mouths-peeping, to the glorious Sunday morning when the chicks discovered – much to their surprise – that fluttering their wings like that made them airborne. The first brave fledgling flapped too hard, rose from the nest with astonishment – and then fell. About halfway to the ground, its panicked flapping slowed its descent, and it glided to earth, where it looked around, enormously pleased with itself. Experimentation ensued, as it hopped and flitted from bush to bush. We watched, riveted, as siblings followed suit. The birds were having a ball in the backyard with their newfound skills when, to our intense disgust, we humans had to go to Sunday School. My suggestion that watching robins leave the nest was an important spiritual exercise was vetoed. By the time we returned from church, the birds were gone. We wished them bon voyage.
All that was going on when I read that Bradbury book. I remember not liking Bradbury's stories very much. The tennis shoe story stuck in my mind, though, because I agreed with Bradbury on one point: putting on tennis shoes for the season was always a satisfying thing. Why? Because it meant the weather was improving – and the robins would be back. He could keep all that self-referential bushwah about 'marshmallows and coiled springs', however.
Tell you what, though: talking about how to describe memories made me dredge one up. I can't wait to read yours.