Heard a fascinating lecture on memory in novels by Fred Shafer at Off Campus Writers Workshop last week. It was the second in a four part series, and Fred aims to replace “backstory” with “memory.” Backstory is factual and provides needed information in summary; a memory is dramatic and specific and laden with emotion. He suggests writing memory in scene (“the then becomes the now”), rich with sensory details—in memory, often visual and auditory, and focused on a small detail, and on setting. Memories exists because they made an impression on us, he says, and so it’s important to find the details that planted the memory. The most effective memories to use in fiction are those which involve unusual experiences, or experiences to which a person cannot return (the memories of those living in exile, for example).
Fred’s premise is that our characters had lives before the novel began; as writers, we need to find the memories to which the character has returned during his or her life. After the lecture, I returned to a piece I’ve been working on which includes a lot of memory, and was able to improve those memories by paying better attention not only to their details, but also paying better attention to what frame of mind the memory puts a character in. And lastly, I found I needed to go back and make sure the cues for the memory made sense.
It also occurred to me that one of the hallmarks of a novel is that it remembers itself—that is, the characters remember what they’ve done before on the page, and sometimes refer to the past experiences the reader has already read about. Using that kind of memory gives additional credence to the introduced memories that we used to call backstory.
Lastly, what I took away from Fred’s lecture that even though I’ve been studying novels with him in a monthly workshop for twelve years, there is always, always, something new to be learned about this complicated and exhilarating process called writing a novel.