Monday Writing Motivation: Memory and the creative writer

 In All About Writing, Monday Motivation, Richard Beynon's blog

On Friday mornings, Trish, our friend and neighbour Caroline and I have taken to spending the morning in a bistro called Bridges in the centre of Bedford. There we have coffee, a breakfast (typically poached eggs, spinach, bacon, perhaps a sausage and a couple of slices of halloumi) and we work until perhaps noon.

Then we saunter home. By “saunter” I mean, Trish and Caroline are on foot, and I am on my scooter. Our invariable companion on these adventures is Aggie, Caroline’s extraordinarily well behaved rescue dog from Greece.

The journey home takes us along the Victorian Embankment on the River Great Ouse – in flood at the moment thanks to the rain that has been lashing this country for what sometimes feels like the last decade or so. It is a charming walk. We’re accompanied by flotillas of swans sailing up and down the swollen waters of the river (see the video below), unperturbed by the speed of the stream.

Then we duck down along a trail that leads under Longholme Drive and turn onto the arrow-straight pathway that follows the line of the railway between Oxford and Cambridge, ripped out by tweezer-lipped bureaucrats in the 1960s. There are now proposals to rebuild the connection between the two cities at vast expense.

These final few hundred metres are flanked on both sides by trees – on our right, a ditch beyond the treeline, and then the chain link fence surrounding the marina; on our left a bank, a band of trees, and one of the many arms of the Ouse.

We’re walking along the tarred path. “Listen,” I say.

These are the elements of the soundscape:

The rattle and clatter of my scooter wheels on the tar. The hum of distant traffic. The swish-swish of Trish and Caroline’s raincoats. The slight susurration of a breeze passing through the bare branches of the trees on either side of us. The repeated and piercing note of a great tit. The raucous kraak of a heron winging its way high above us. The croo-croo of doves. The sluice of water hurrying down the river on our left. The faint pad of Aggie’s paws on the path.

My attention is caught by an early cluster of violets growing in the leaf mould. I slow and take a longer look at that leaf mould.

I’ve often thought about the fact that every year millions of deciduous trees across the length and breadth of the United Kingdom shed their leaves every autumn and winter. This rain of organic material, which then rots down to its particular constituents, must, over the centuries and millennia, have helped shape the landscape, providing essential elements of the soil that nurtures successive generations of plants.

Leaf mould is the most humble of substances. Lean down from your mobility scooter and scoop up a handful. Some would dismiss this as dirt. I regard it as the almost infinitely complex product of generations of living matter, layered by the season, marinated in rain, broken down by the processes of decomposition and metamorphosis, making its molecules available for growth and regeneration.

The closer you look at leaf mould, the more miraculous it seems, teeming with microbial life, worlds within worlds. Added to vegetable and flower beds, it boosts growth, provides pockets of air to otherwise dense soil, and feeds the inhabitants of the bed a wide variety of trace elements. Left on the ground where it formed, it helps the world remake itself season by season.

The experiences and memories we accumulate over time are not unlike leaf mould. Year by year, just as the leaves of a million trees rain down upon the ground, so an infinite number of sensory impressions – all those sounds! all those smells! –  form strata of unremembered memories within us, from which, unconsciously, we draw inspiration for, among many other things, our writing.

Our subconscious mind acts as fertile ground in which memories ferment. They might be forgotten in our conscious waking life, yet they subtly influence our thoughts, feelings, and behaviours. Like the nutrients released by leaf mould, the essence of these buried memories seeps into our present reality and transforms it.

Sometimes, just as a knot of violets might unexpectedly sprout through leaf mould, a forgotten memory can resurface with startling clarity. A scent, a great tit’s shrill cry, a familiar place – these can all act as triggers, unearthing fragments of our past. These unexpected resurgences illuminate the ongoing, dynamic interplay between the visible and invisible layers of our consciousness.

Our walk home that crisp morning, by some reckoning the first day of spring, provided me with another shower of memory leaves. By paying attention I was able to identify just some of the impressions that went to make up that sensory stratum. But whether you’re focused on the sounds and smells and other sensations that you experience, the process is at work, moulding and remoulding the bedrock of your world.

Happy writing,

Richard

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Use it to write a good scene. Use it to write a good story or book because, never forget, a good book is simply a series of good scenes. That piece of wisdom should keep you from feeling daunted. Focus on the next scene you write and make it the best it can be. And then the next.

Use these guidelines at the rewrite stage, to help you focus on what works, and what can still be improved.

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P.P.S. And, here’s a little video from our trip to Bridges:

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