OUR NEXT WRITER will take on the slippery topic of bridging the gap from the here to the then – that distance of writing from memory. Nancy Henderson-James is another author from Plain View Press, a much-admired, indie press that has been in business for more than thirty years. I love their work, and think you should know about them. Luckily for us, they make fine books with good writers. We previously featured Plain View Press when reading the Writing Lessons post and excerpt of Ariel Balter, author of The Maternity Labyrinth. Let’s see what Nancy has to teach us.
How To Write From Memory
by Nancy Henderson-James
Many readers have asked, “How do you remember events that happened so long ago?”
A good question, since my childhood memoir was written fifty years after the fact. How do you flesh out your story with details, infuse it with feelings, and remain true to the experience? I was lucky to have some ancient diaries and my mother had saved letters I had written home as a nine-year-old when I was away at school. But if you are like me, what I wrote as a child cannot qualify as insightful or of literary quality. The best technique I stumbled upon, while my fingers hovered over the keyboard searching for inspiration, was fixing an image, a smell, a sound in my mind and becoming conscious of whatever bubbled up. Often a complex constellation of events or images would present itself.
What was happening in my fourteen-year-old gut when I handed the orphan baby out the train window to her next caregiver? Looking back, could I connect her hand-off with my parents turning me over to relative strangers when I was in fourth grade? What did the fragrance of olive oil wafting from the kitchen bring to mind? What was my relationship to our Angolan cook who bought fish from the passing boat on the beach by our house? What feelings were evoked from the lapping of water on the shore, the riffling of palm leaves, the zoom of a motorbike, or the chatter of a Portuguese child up the block?
The memories that spontaneously arose gave me an entrée into a scene or an insight into a character or a specific detail I had forgotten. The images could trigger a cascade of related memories. My memories did not always match those of my siblings, but in the end I felt sure that they were faithful to my particular experiences and the way I sorted out my life.
At Home Abroad: An American Girl in Africa, an excerpt
Maria Teresa. Her birth name too long for her tiny body. At seven months, she was a wizened eight pounds, unable to hold up her head, roll over, or smile, and so she became simply Tez. I gazed at her soft brown skin, her dark eyes, and her springy curls. She grasped my finger and held on. I cradled her. I suckled her with bottles of rich milk, and watched her blossom into a sturdy grinning one-year old, on the verge of her first step. Her legs had transformed from fragile twigs into strong saplings, planted solidly on her Angolan land. I prepared to give her, healthy, back to her family just a year before the colonial revolution against Portugal. We boarded the train, I to continue on to Rhodesia for high school, she to go home to a family she didn’t know. What became of her?
I’ll never completely come to terms with the audacity of handing Tez out the train window at the Bela Vista whistle stop. Wrenched from me, a 14-year-old who didn’t know about repercussions, didn’t understand how the body never forgets. I went on with life, moved to school 1500 miles away, learned to maneuver another culture, and left Africa abruptly when war started. But what happened to that little Angolan girl forty-eight years later, if she survived war, land mines, hunger, and flight to a neighboring country? Did she die or did she grow up a refugee—one of 300,000 who fled? After forty years, the war sputtered to a close in 2002. Has Tez returned to Angola, hoping to make her life in a devastated land, in an unfamiliar country? Whether and how she survived continues to haunt me.
I was a late bloomer in writing, beginning toward the end of a career as a librarian. I am forever grateful to writing for giving me a way to understand my dislocated life. Though I have lived in the United States my entire adult life, I still wonder if I belong here. Writing supplies constant food for inquiry and expression. I wrote At Home Abroad: An American Girl in Africa and have contributed essays to Unrooted Childhoods: Memoirs of Growing up Global and Writing Out of Limbo: International Childhoods, Global Nomads, and Third Culture Kids. I am working on another memoir about my many mothers and fathers. My website for my memoir can be viewed here. The book is available through Plain View Press.
AND THE WINNER IS…
I hope you enjoy Writing Lessons. Featuring well-published writers of our favorite genre, each installment of the series will take on one short topic that addresses how to write memoir, and will include a great big book giveaway.
It’s my way of saying thanks for coming by.
The contest for this book is now closed. Please see the next installment of Writing Lessons.
The winner of Nancy Henderson-James’ fine book is Joely. Congratulations, Joely! I’ll be in touch to send your book.