"When dawn spreads its paintbrush on the plain, spilling purple... ," Songs of the Pioneers song from TV show "Wagon Train." Dawn on the mythic Santa Fe Trail, New Mexico, looking toward Raton from Cimarron. -- Clarkphoto. A curmudgeon's old-fashioned newspaper column, cross-breeding metaphors and journalism and art, for readers in 150 countries.

Sunday, October 4, 2009

What do you remember?



Terry and Jerry

Writing for me is always an exercise in memory and organization, but I spend so much time thinking and studying and teaching about the craft of writing that I've ignored the memory tools.

Thanks to a highly recommended new book, "Old Friend from Far Away" by Natalie Goldberg, and with the help of some of black and white photos from the family album, I'm exploring new ground.

Goldberg is a New York Jew who converted to Buddhism and has made a name for herself, and lots of money teaching writing, and living in Taos. Twenty years ago she wrote "Writing Down the Bones," of which I have an autographed copy, and "Wild Mind," two books of great advice and hints on writing. I still use these in my classes. She's not written anything on writing since then, and this new book is on the practice of writing memoir. It has exercises for both prompting memory and improving writing.

The key to her message is "writing practice." The only way to get better at writing is to practice on a regular basis, just like any art or activity. If you've not read her before, I'll share those ideas later.

But now I'm most interested in remembering. I've blocked a lot of my past out...it's not Alzheimer's (yet), but there is much about my youth I just don't remember. Looking at these photos is helping. Some of her ideas help. The only way to improve memory is to practice--which is why oral cultures have an advantage over our "civilization." With the advent of writing, we began to diminish our ability to remember simply because we no longer had to.Those of us who had to memorize poems or the Gettysburg address or Bible verses are ahead of many, but we're a decreasing minority in this digital world--except for teenagers memorizing the songs of their favorite musician, at least. The muscles are still there, but they're like the appendix--withered away.

Yet to me, the biggest loss when someone dies is the loss of their memories. I'd love to ask my Dad about painting, about when he lost his leg, about living through the Depression. I'd love to ask my Mom about growing up in east Texas, about her family. But those memories, and answers, are gone. Like the belt buckle in the pix above. I still have it. It's silver and turquoise. I have a pix of my Dad wearing it in 1940. Where did he get it? I want to know, but there's no clue, other than New Mexico. One Navajo told me it was "very old>' That's all. I get some information from my last uncle, Mike, but there is so much more I want to know.

Memory is dangerous too...Not only does each person have triggers--people, places, smells, sounds, tastes, photos-- that pull thoughts back from somewhere deep, they can be pleasant or bitter.

I guess I'm old enough to consider writing a history of the five Clark boys. I'm not sure I want to write my memoir because a lot of it would be painful to myself and others and private. But Goldberg is right here...you have to write this for yourself, being free from fear of judgment. My Dad's diaries give me a peek inside his life. My blogging does this for me, just like daily journals of my trips allow me to go back in time to a certain restaurant or hotel or attraction when read years later.

I'm a journalist--I don't know that I'm disciplined enough to write an entire memoir--besides there's so much else that I want to do, like blog, paint, travel. What I really fear is digging deep into myself, and the scope of trying something like that--the same fear my students show when they think they have to write an entire story.

But I can write one page at a time, I know that. And I can open one memory at a time. And each page, each memory, leads to another.

What do you remember?

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