Whether we are revealing ourselves through memoir or creating an alien world in a novel, our experiences drive our storytelling. Writers can amplify the brightness of so-called “flashbulb memories” to add more vigor to the stories they tell. That was one takeaway for me from Saturday’s Conversations and Connections writer’s conference in Washington, D.C., sponsored by Barrelhouse and hosted by Johns Hopkins University.
A “flashbulb memory,” author, teacher and literary journal editor Joanne Cavanaugh Simpson told a tired but engaged audience late in the day, is an emotional event that is locked down in our memory. It’s remembering where we were and what we were doing on 9/11, for example. We relive the memories, in our minds and in our telling of them to others. But everyone has memories unique to them, often linked to a personal trauma.
Isaac Baker‘s forthcoming novel Broken Bones was inspired by a flashbulb memory that proved to be the first to return to him after awakening in a hospital in 2008 not knowing who he was. The memory was that 1) he was married, and 2) his wife was cheating on him, and 3) she had recently left him. Exploring this memory, he realized he was hospitalized because the trauma had led him to stop eating.
From Baker’s description of Broken Bones, it sounds like his novel borrows heavily from real life. But panelists made clear that the flashbulb memory should be considered a trigger point from which a narrative could be built. It is the narrative that matters; a traumatic memory may be unique to us, but we all suffer trauma. The key is to find a way to build an original story from that trauma.
Josip Novakovich watched his father die at the age of eleven. He relived that flashbulb memory every year on his father’s death day, convinced that at midnight he too would die. The death of a father is not unique to Novakovich, but he said that vivid and life-shaping moment has helped him launch numerous writing projects, including stories, essays, and even poetry.
We all remember things differently. Dario DiBattista knows this well. An Iraq War veteran, he has written extensively about his experiences since returning to the U.S. and earning an MA in Creative Writing. What he has found, however, is that two soldiers in the same battle can have highly divergent perspectives on what transpired, with one convinced the firefight lasted minutes and another equally adamant it lasted hours.
If crafting a memoir, the writer must tell the story as it is true to her, even if others will have a different perspective, Simpson said. This is something Simpson has given a lot of thought to, as she recently launched a new literary journal, Three Quarter Review, featuring essays that are “at least 75% true.”
But the notion of varied perspectives on the same incident can also be useful in fiction. Panelists discussed how a writer could take one incident from his life and imagine how various characters would view that same incident. That process could trigger a narrative for a short story, or even a novel.
Have you ever used a flashbulb memory to craft a story? What steps did you take to go beyond the memory itself and build a narrative, to tell a story instead of just a memory?