Triggered: the Power of Memory in Stories

Do you ever think about how much of our lives we spend reflecting?

I don’t mean staring into a mirror. And I don’t necessarily mean long, soul-searching contemplations on our inner being. I simply mean pausing to acknowledge or recall the past and its events. This could lead to a deeper thought process of comparing the past with our present, or even tracing the development of the present from the past—but it all starts with a simple pause triggered by something.

Perhaps it’s a visual object, like a family photo.

A smell that takes you back to childhood.

A song that reminds you of someone or some season of life.

Whatever it is, it temporarily immunizes you to the bombardments of the present and transports you backwards in time—for better or worse.

Maybe it’s something you don’t want to remember, but there it is, all the same. Or maybe it’s the kind of memory that makes you wish you could literally, and not just mentally, relive the experience.

I find it interesting that many stories (in fact, some of the best) do this.

They depict a character experiencing the power of recollection, either in a nostalgic or traumatic way.

We as the readers or viewers are invited to participate in that to whatever degree we have shared the experience.

This “sharing” of experience pans out in one of two ways.

In the first way, we witness a character recalling an event or person whom we never witnessed or met in the story.

In a sense, it’s a flashback whose purpose is to reveal information to us, not to recall it with us. A classic example is the flashback in Once Upon A Time in the West, where we see what Henry Fonda’s character did to Charles Bronson’s character long ago in order to explain why Bronson has been seeking revenge the entire movie. Or even It’s A Wonderful Life, in which the entire first hour and a half are, technically speaking, a flashback on George Bailey’s life in order to explain what has brought him to his present situation.

In this type of “reflection,” the reader or viewer does not actually engage in the act of recollection—we only perceive that the character is reflecting.

But in the second type, we witness the events and meet the characters that are later alluded to in the character’s moment of reflection.

Take the film Up. At the beginning, we see a very brief but powerful montage of Carl Fredricksen’s married life with Ellie, before he is widowed and goes on to live out the main adventure portrayed in the story. When he rediscovers the old photo album near the end of the movie, we feel that we have lived those memories with him as he pages through. We can not only appreciate his nostalgia sympathetically, but empathetically, because we were “there” when he had those experiences. Ellie is not only a part of Carl’s memory—she is also a part of ours.

There is more to be said on this, which is why I’ve decided to make this topic a short series of posts. But for now, I want to open the discussion and see what you think about these two types of reflection that occur in storytelling.

Are certain kinds of stories prone to using one of these forms of reflection?

Are there some examples of books or movies that do just fine without any such pauses of reflection?

In either case, I think it’s noteworthy that so many stories play to our sense of memory in order to draw us in. Perhaps it’s a testament to the universally human nature of reflection, whether or not you consider yourself a sentimental person.

How Many Faces Can One Figure Have?

Have you ever seen multiple iterations of the same historical figure?

I don’t mean simply multiple appearances of said person in a variety of different hist-fic books, shows, or movies. I mean different works both devoted to that person, whose portrayals clash in some significant way.

Take for example the legendary King Arthur and Guinevere. Countless versions of their story have been told, many of them giving vastly different depictions of the main characters. I mean, the 2004 film stars a strapping young Clive Owen alongside Keira Knightley—as opposed to The First Knight, which embodies Arthur in a majestic-but-aged Sean Connery whose marriage to Guinevere is nothing short of cradle robbery. Oh yeah, and then there’s Camelot…

This really is no surprise, though, considering how longstanding of a legend King Arthur and his knights are.

But I found this type of discrepancy somewhat jarring in the cinematized portrayals of a much more recent historical figure who has caught the public eye these days: Queen Victoria.

Having first seen the movie The Young Victoria, written by Julian Fellowes (the same guy who wrote Downton Abbey!) and starring Emily Blunt, I got a very different impression of the woman whose story was later adapted in the BBC series Victoria by Daisy Goodwin. Of course, there would be some variations, as one is a standalone movie that only presents the beginning of her marriage and reign, whereas the other follows her life for three seasons (and counting).

There were definitely some points of overlap, probably due to known historical facts. In both, she is portrayed as a very independent, determined woman who spoke her mind freely. We also see her reluctance towards motherhood and her strong temper—two documented facts. But the thing that did not seem consistent between the two—in fact, was disturbingly inconsistent—was the nature of her marriage to Prince Albert.

It’s not that Jenna Coleman’s Victoria doesn’t love her Albert… it’s just that she constantly feels threatened and undermined by him, seemingly to the point of paranoia.

Julian Fellowes captured one or two quarrels between the couple in his feature film, which suggested Victoria’s capacity for overreaction and irrational behavior—but it seems this is the norm in the world of BBC. It’s a rare moment when Victoria and Albert aren’t in a tiff over something.

I guess this confused me because I had never thought of their marriage being particularly tumultuous. After doing some research of my own, it seems like there might actually be something to this portrayal of constant conflict. Granted, some of these articles give only cursory (and potentially sensationalized) glances at the facts, but it made me wonder. Either the movie glosses over reality, or the show over-dramatizes reality, because the two depictions of Victoria are not entirely compatible.

What this comes back to is the responsibility that a person assumes when he or she decides to write about a historical figure.

Obviously historical fiction/elaboration is not inherently unethical, but it holds the power to either baptize or demonize a figure of the past.

But I think the best thing we can do is humanize them.

Of course some figures have nobler legacies than others, but even the best and the worst of them were still human. When you’re telling stories about real people, the goal shouldn’t be to glamorize them beyond reason, and it shouldn’t be to simply state the cold, hard facts—that’s what documentaries are for. If you’re going to get creative with someone’s biography, it’s best to do so in a way that brings them down to earth or speculatively fleshes out their personality. Because no matter what other information might be missing, we know they were humans… and so is your audience.

What the Author Hoped You Wouldn’t Notice

It’s funny how much of an author’s character we read into his works.

We’ve all done it, and often with good reason.

Knowing Mark Twain believed in racial equality helps us understand The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn as a satire.

Knowing Arthur Miller’s purpose in writing The Crucible enables us to view the play primarily as a political statement—not as the religious commentary of a Puritan-hater.

Awareness of Edgar Allan Poe’s traumatic loss of both his mother and his wife to tuberculosis casts an informative light on his morose poems and stories—especially those involving the deaths of young women.

But what happens if you reverse the process?

That is, what can you infer about a writer’s character from his or her stories?

This is a dangerous question.

Not that it’s always invalid. If you know your classics, you’d call this an Aristotelian approach, as opposed to a Platonic one. (And no, I do not mean Platonic in the non-romantic sense of the word!)

Here’s a little logic lesson:

In a Platonic approach, you start with what you know about the source (in this case, the author) and use that knowledge to interpret the product (in this case, the book, poem, or script). But in an Aristotelian approach, you start with the concrete data in front of you and try to reason backwards to understand what created that data—to understand the mind and character of the author.

So why is this dangerous?

It’s dangerous because it can reveal things about the writer that he didn’t think anyone would notice—or at least, hoped no one would connect to him.

Maybe an insecurity in one of his characters. Maybe a failed love interest (don’t writers love to sneak their exes in!). Maybe a moral dilemma or personal failing.

Now I’m no Freudian psychologist— but I am an author. One of my friends asked me after reading The Exile if one of the narrator’s quirks was my own. Guilty as charged. Well, not really guilty, considering it was just a quirk and not a moral issue. But still, I’d been caught.

Of course, I refused to answer the question, saying that the characters were their own individuals and not simply facets of myself—which is true, as every writer understands. Giving our characters some of our personal traits does not make them miniatures of us. I think it makes them human.

In a similar way, an author’s incorporating themes and experiences from his or her life into a story does not make it an autobiography or a manifesto.

They do not write those things in, hoping someone will say “Wow, I guess he really hated his father!” Even if a universally negative portrayal of father figures suggests the author’s toxic parental relationship. They write those things in because no one wants to tell a story about something they don’t care about. And no one wants to read a story told by someone who doesn’t care about it.

A work will never reflect the whole of the author’s character, nor will it ever be purely a reflection on its creator’s own person. It will also draw from outside the author. But if you look closely, there will always be something subliminally present in the story that the author slipped in. Maybe consciously, hoping the reader doesn’t associate it with him; maybe subconsciously, writing from the unfiltered but cryptic heart. Does that mean a story could be a form of “author-therapy?”

In a sense, perhaps. But I think any story worth its salt will carry some personal ties to the author, and any brave writer will not shrink from including whatever vulnerabilities will make the story more real—even at the risk of “getting caught.”

Sailing on Against All Obstacles: Lessons from a Historical Figure

“Only a weakling gives up when he’s becalmed! A strong man sails by ash breeze.”

Admittedly a funny-sounding inspirational quote. What on earth is “sailing by ash breeze?”

I wondered this when I first read the line in Carry on Mr. Bowditch— the true story of Nathaniel Bowditch, one of the lesser-known-but-crucial figures during the early 1800s. The novel by Jean Latham traces the childhood and young adulthood of the man who single-handedly developed the advanced form of navigation that laid the foundation for maritime practicum worldwide.

Oh yeah—and he never went to college.

But he did receive an honorary M.A. from Harvard after publishing his revolutionary The American Practical Navigator, which forever changed the way seafarers charted their courses. The book itself contains an overview of the relevant astronomy, oceanography, and calculations that Bowditch learned from reading scholarly works in languages he literally taught himself to read.

Oh, and did I mention? He never went to college.

That was obstacle number 1.

The other major hurdles to his success, and frankly, survival, were the one-by-one deaths of almost half his family and his first wife.

I remember thinking when I picked up the book, “Oh, this is going to be a fun little book about a historical figure.” After all, it was written primarily for a younger audience, so it couldn’t have that much sobering content… could it?

Although recorded in the most matter-of-fact way, the loss of each loved one in the story began to feel like a punch in the gut as I became more invested in Nat’s character. And yet what’s incredible is that none of this stopped him. How is that possible?

Latham writes a beautiful exchange between young Nat and a sailor early on, when he has just learned he must serve out an indenture instead of going to school. After a jaded old seaman tells Nat his indenture will leave him “becalmed,” his kind-hearted counterpart proceeds to explain:

“When a ship is becalmed – the wind died down – she can’t move – sometimes the sailors break out their oars. They’ll row a boat ahead of the ship and tow her….Oars are made of ash – white ash. So – when you get ahead by your own get-up-and-get – that’s when you ‘sail by ash breeze’.” (p. 48)

From this point on, Nat becomes determined to sail by ash breeze—and he does. Each setback, each family death that could have crippled him fails to becalm him and leave him stagnant. This becomes the most compelling point of the story.

It made me stop and think:

How often do we find ourselves waiting for the winds to change when we should be breaking out the oars?

Whether it’s waiting to get into a dream school, waiting for a dream career, waiting to publish a book, waiting to make new friends—whatever you’re waiting for, there comes a point when it’s time to get moving. Sure, you can’t always force these things to happen, but it helps to build momentum until the winds change—to keep going with your own “get-up-and-get” until you get the boost you’re waiting for.

And if the boost never comes?

Well, you’ve still progressed forward and are that much closer to the other shore. And putting in the sweat will make you that much stronger for the rest of the journey.

The Story I Distilled With

When I pulled the two notebooks off my shelf and folded back the cover of each, what I saw surprised me.

Even though it’s only been a handful of years since I filled them, the penciled handwriting is already fading.

Yep. Pencil. I was not the most resourceful writer when I started The Exile. Somehow I didn’t foresee that graphite, unlike ink, would have a tough time remaining intact for posterity. But of course, I was fourteen at the time.

What fourteen-year-old thinks about posterity?

The fact is, there were a lot of things I didn’t think about at fourteen when I began the novel.

I know the big thing these days is to plow through and finish manuscripts quickly, but in this case, I’m glad I didn’t. There is so much that teenage Shiloh would never have incorporated in the telling of this story that became crucial parts of the final product. Not that I was writing the first draft for six and a half years, but the revision process took a solid three.

If you’ve read the book (or honestly, even just the first chapter) you know there are some heavy elements. Elements with which I had no personal experience. The first time I wrote those scenes depicting clan brutality, I had very little help other than what my research told me—and the sound of Delta’s voice in my head narrating it.

Years later, I still have no experience with some of those themes, but what I do have is exposure.

I have met victims of abuse. I’ve heard their stories and the impact those events left on them.

Some of the themes I am now acquainted with personally. The death of close family members. The struggle to explain away events using my own neat little paradigms, afraid to face the fact that my preconceptions don’t always match reality.

A lot of life happens between our teenage years and our twenties. In a way, the story and I grew up together. What started out as almost entirely speculative writing became informed by my own life experience and exposure, making the characters more human, the themes more full, and the story more real. There are still plenty of elements in The Exile that could have received more depth if the process had taken ten years, but we have to draw a line somewhere!

Here’s question I’m left with at the end of the writing process: how do you know when to start the story you’re burning to tell?

Last week I compared a story to a bottle of wine: the longer it sits in the bottle, the richer it becomes. That analogy fits for many of my novel and script ideas. I’ve deferred sitting down to write them because I haven’t considered myself mature enough to adequately handle their scope and depth—and so they’ve been percolating for years.

But in some cases, the story might be more like a block of cheese than a bottle of wine: apt to grow moldy if left on the shelf for too long.

So how long is too long of a wait? Do we run the risk of the ideas growing stale?

Do we wait to write until we feel we have enough life under our belts? Or is there something about the writing process that actually matures us along the way?

The Package that took Six and a Half Years

I spent the entire day listening for the knock on the door that would signal the delivery of the package.

Six and a half years of waiting for this package… it had been a long wait.

The irony is that I had to take a phone call from my boss, and by the time I got off the phone the truck and come and gone without my hearing it. And when I found the box on the porch and peeled back the cold cardboard, I can say I was actually afraid.

My book had already been published—it was already out there in the e-world, making the rounds. But something about knowing that now it existed in the three-dimensional world, with two covers and a spine, and (gasp) actual pages to turn… that’s scary stuff.

When I first held it, the thing that struck me (aside from how cold it was from being outside) was the weight of the book. At 282 pages, it’s sizeable, but not huge. It’s not the volume that surprised me, but the heaviness in my hands as I held it between them for the first time.

It occurred to me that, until now, the only other place its completed body had been contained was in my mind.

The original manuscript, jotted in one and a half notebooks, was not complete. So many changes had been made that altered the themes—or rather, those changes happened later as I realized what the themes inherently were. But here, at the end of a six and a half year long process, the developed, revised, completed product of my mind had been delivered to my doorstep by a person I never got to thank—enclosed neatly between a two-sided cover.

I hardly knew what to think.

After paging through it and seeing that everything looked all right, I finally stopped feeling afraid. Everything was in order. The physical appearance of the book was not going to single-handedly wreck my burgeoning literary career. On the contrary, I don’t think I could be happier with how the cover looks (shout-out to my amazing designer Ana Ristovska in Macedonia!).

But if you’re a writer, or have ever written something that mattered deeply to you, you know the feeling.

That thing you’re staring at in your hands—it’s a part of you. It weighs something.

And if you’ve been through the revision process, you know how agonizing it is to rework and rearrange and rewrite things that didn’t work on the first or seventeenth draft. And if you’ve been through the publishing process, you know how discouraging it is when rejection letter after rejection letter comes—or worse yet, when you get approached by a publisher, only to find out it’s a scam group. (Yep, been there.)

But you know what?

Aside from the characters in that story, the thing I’m most proud of is the eleven rejection letters I got along the way. If I had the wall space (which I definitely don’t), I would frame them all.

Because each time someone said no, I had to take that as “not yet.”

And when it comes to freelancing, that absolutely has to be your mantra. Of course, the version that is now in print is very different from the first version that crossed a publisher’s desk—which is a good thing. Each time someone said no, it not only went to someone else, but it got better. And now that it’s here, copyrighted, published, and printed, it’s the best it’s ever been.

I like to think of some stories as a bottle of wine: the more time they spend in the bottle, the richer they are when poured out. So six and a half years? Yeah, it was a long wait. Eleven rejections? Yeah, it was tough.

But I wouldn’t wish for one year or letter less.

From Grilled Cheese to Paninis: a Literary Journey

Are stories with morals antiquated?

I mean, think about it: when was the last time you read a story or watched a movie with a clear “moral” and didn’t inwardly yawn?

But we’ve been born and raised on such stories. Everything from Beatrix Potter to Aesop’s Fables to The Children’s Book of Virtues. Sure, there are plenty that don’t smack of moral instruction, but it’s interesting that a large proportion (if not all) of the old “classics” in children’s literature make a clear value statement. Not only a value statement, but an explicit statement of what one “ought” to do in specific situations.

I think most of us would agree that, as we get older, this kind of story loses its potency with us as readers.

Not that we don’t have fond associations with the books we grew up reading, but we don’t keep looking for that kind of blatant moral guidance as youths and adults.

Why is this?

The philosophers might tell us it’s because once our moral system has been developed, we don’t feel the need to reinforce our values through simplistic narratives. The psychologists might say it’s because our brains have become so accustomed to specific moral patterns that we find the repetition of such fundamental content unstimulating. And some groups in religion might suggest that our distaste for explicit moral statements marks a hardening of the conscience as we mature.

All of these might have a grain of truth. And yet when you look at the history of different cultures, most storytelling traditions started off as instructional. Myths, legends, and lore usually revolved around or pointed to some lesson that the audience was supposed to glean. Especially during medieval European Christendom, stories of the saints were told as fundamental lessons in virtue so that others could follow in their footsteps. Evidently for a while people didn’t tire of hearing stories intended for moral development.

So why do we tire of them now?

Is this a mark of a society that has outgrown spoon-fed, black-and-white morals? Or is it the mark of a society that no longer has an appetite for morality at all?

I think it varies between the individuals that make up society.

With moral relativism gaining ground in our culture, I’m sure there are some people who come to view absolute morals as irrelevant and non-existent. So by the time they reach adulthood, they have no use for fables or their messages.

But for others, growing up means moving from explicit moral statements to implicit value statements. It’s not that they reject the ideas promoted in their childhood stories—it’s just that they’ve developed an appetite for more complex stories that speak through whispers rather than megaphones.

Take for example, The Giving Tree: a children’s story about a boy who knows only how to take and never learns to give. By the end, when he is an old man, he realizes that selfish pursuit leads only to unhappiness. He missed out on what matters most.

Similarly, Jay Gatsby in The Great Gatsby acquires all the material goods he could possibly ask for… and yet without the woman he loves to share it with him, it amounts to nothing. One of these stories is obviously more simplistic, while the other packs in a host of other themes and sources of tension, but both illustrate a very similar principle. The main difference is subtlety and complexity.

Or take Stella Luna: the story about a bat who grows up with a family of birds, and learns to appreciate their similarities in spite of their differences. There’s the famous line, “How can we be so different and feel so much alike?”

A point echoed, less blatantly, in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. When Huck comes to realize that Jim, although a black slave, has the same emotional ties to his family as white people do, he begins to recognize that people of different colors are not fundamentally different from one another.

Obviously neither Gatsby nor Huckleberry Finn is simply a repackaged children’s book. But I suspect that there are many books we read as adults that contain the same “morals” as the books we grew up reading—minus the neon sign announcing “moral of the story” and plus a web of other themes and complex characters.

So maybe we don’t outgrow stories with morals. Maybe we just develop a palate for more sophisticated stories, just like we outgrow grilled cheese sandwiches for Italian paninis.

Okay, I still love grilled cheese, but you get the point. 🙂

What do you think of all this?

How often do you see books/movies for adults that have a glaringly obvious moral? Does this bother you?

What are some children’s stories with messages that you’ve seen reiterated in adult stories? Do you think certain morals/messages are easier to transcribe from children’s stories to adult ones?