“Sohkratis(Socrates; Gr. Σωκράτης): I would have you imagine, then, that there exists in the mind of man [and woman] a block of wax, which is of different sizes in different men; harder, moister, and having more or less of purity in one than another, and in some of an intermediate quality. ….. Let us say that this table is a gift of Memory (ed. Mnimosyni), the mother of the Muses; and that when we wish to remember anything which we have seen, or heard, or thought in our own minds, we hold the wax to the perceptions and thoughts, and in that material receive the impression of them as from the seal of a ring; and that we remember and know what is imprinted as long as the image lasts; but when the image is effaced, or cannot be taken, then we forget and do not know.”
(Plátohn[Plato; Gr. Πλάτων] Thæaititos[Theaetetus; Gr. Θεαίτητος], 191c-d, translated by Benjamin Jowett, 1892, found in the 1937 Random House [New York] edition of The Dialogues of Plato, Vol. Two, on p. 195)
As we head into Fall, I invite you to meet the mother of all of the muses, the goddess of memory: Mnemosyne.
One reason I love to write down memories–and coach others to do so in their writing practice– is that the act of writing memories creates a neural spark that can, with practice, and with startling predictability, start our writer engines. Moreover, when we recall on pen and paper where we FEEL and smell and taste and see more vividly in the past, we bring that energy into the present. As Natalie Goldberg writes, “Writers live twice.”
I have a background in history so living in the present–for me–must at its root connect with the natural flow and directional bearings of the past for what a dear friend and highly acclaimed historian recently summed up in one word — “context.”
There are many moments that are “too bright to see” as poetess Linda Gregg puts it. Writing down the stories in our lives can be used to draw on the full emotional range we experience in “real time” with detail, texture and emotional nuance. When you write about them from a temporal distance you can get out your sunglasses and drive through them and take in the contextual view.
I think about this as we head into an action-packed Fall, a season where old memories often sweep over me in the fresh leaf-tinged air. This year, I thought, I want to remember so many moments of Summer from the inside out first.
There is only so much that taking a photo can click to capture both the everyday precious and the BIG event moments. For instance, could a photo really capture the moment when I was cleaning my kitchen counter my birthday morning and glanced over at the colorful sight of my dining room table. My daughter had decorated it with a birthday gift and handmade card. It wasn’t just the gifts or the card but her excitement to sit with me and share the hour we had planned together that flooded my breath. I could hear her humming to herself. Later, I grabbed my notebook to describe the whole day in full detail. I wanted more than a photo of the table or us, which of course I took. I wanted my emotional blueprint from deep within.
Memory is what the mother of all of the muses, Mnemosyne speaks most fluently. When you write down a memory flash, you reverse a photo’s external perspective. You enter an enchanted and labyrinthine domain beneath the surface as though you just dangled your fingers in a magician’s hat. The staggering complexities come rushing into your hands–and begin to infuse your logic and approach on other writing projects and in how you walk through the kitchen door and grab your coffee first thing in the morning.
So, this week, some of you might be at picnics or with family but be sure to bring a notebook. What family story do you want to remember for context? What memories are markers for you that have an imprint kind of message for you? Don’t worry about being perfect or neat. Put all of that aside for now. Bring all of you to your writing party. Where is the fuller context that leads you to your largest most vivid self?
“We are important and our lives are important, magnificent really, and their details are worthy to be recorded. This is how writers must think, this is how we must sit down with pen in hand. We were here; we are human beings; this is how we lived. Let it be known, the earth passed before us. Our details are important. Otherwise, if they are not, we can drop a bomb and it doesn’t matter. . . Recording the details of our lives is a stance against bombs with their mass ability to kill, against too much speed and efficiency. A writer must say yes to life, to all of life: the water glasses, the Kemp’s half-and-half, the ketchup on the counter.”
-Natalie Goldberg, Writing Down the Bones: Freeing the Writer Within