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A Sense of Memory Part 2

Writing.ie | Resources | Better Fiction Guides | The Art of Description

Guy Le Jeune

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‘There were two walnut trees… two walnut trees… one is still there, it is!’

At the end of Part 1 I suggested two smells that might act as the magical time machine, taking you to some special place beyond your conscious recall. The choice of vanilla essence and carbolic soap was very deliberate. They are two very powerful scent-memories from my own childhood and act as a common currency to those of us of a certain age—baking smells and scrubbed hands

Of course smell isn’t the only sense that can takes us to long forgotten places: taste is a function of smell and is just as powerful, music and noise can be very evocative and the look and feel of objects can sometimes trigger memories too. It is often a combination of sensations that can cause us to remember. In my own experience, seeing and handling a pair of laundry tongs for the first time in 30 years brought me back to Grandma’s pantry again and the top loading washing machine: the smell of Dreft or Omo, the click of the tongs and the feel of the wet, slippy beech-wood.

After the research I mentioned in the previous article I developed an idea for a reminiscence project of my own. In partnership with An Grianán Theatre in Letterkenny, I created the Sense of Memory project.

The project follows the routes of the railways of the North West of Ireland and working with groups of older people on both sides of the border we have been gathering stories and reminiscences of work life and home, the linen industry and the Showbands and the memories of a different place and pace of life. We heard stories of smuggling from one side of the border to the other and in both directions; we heard stories of the characters such as Ghandi from Strabane, who had no legs and pushed himself around on wheeled cart; Johnny the Darkie, the Indians who sold clothes door to door (they were a family and used the name Johnny for convenience); Crazy Eddie, who stopped the mail train from Strabane by jumping on the tracks and holding his hands up.

We heard stories of emigration and the Foyle pilots and merchant seamen, of farming and harvests, of good times and hard times. We are still working with the groups and he reminiscences are being recorded. The recordings will be transcribed so that we can produce a theatre piece and an exhibition that will give a flavour of life in the North West in the 50’s and 60’s.

The project is still running and the theatre piece will hope to premiere during the Bealtaine Festival in May 2013. We also hope to produce a book of the stories too.

While not designed to be a therapeutic exercise the project has had some extraordinary benefits and not just to the participants. The facilitators have all come away with moments of wonder and delight as well as an appreciation of the wealth of stories and histories that the ordinary people of the North West own.

For me, one moment in particular stands out. I was working with a group in Strabane. We we’re drawing maps of where we lived when we were children. It’s a lovely exercise to do, starting with your own house and adding details as you remember them. One lady, Elsie, was sitting very quietly and her paper sheet was blank. As trained facilitators, we are very aware that some memories might be painful and that a quiet participant might need some support.

I sat down beside Elsie and asked her whether she was ok and whether there was anything that might be upsetting her. She shook her head and said she was fine but that she just couldn’t remember anything about the house where she had lived as a child. I asked whether she remembered the colour… no. I asked whether she remembered the windows… no. I asked whether she remembered the garden…

‘There were two walnut trees… two walnut trees… one is still there, it is!’

Five minutes later Elsie’s map was covered in barns, roads, hedges, fields, animals and trees. She’d remembered the cottage and it’s windows; she’d remembered the view and the spring well; she’d remembered things that she hadn’t thought of for 50 or more years and the smile on her face was as wider than I have ever seen.

The process of reminiscence is so powerful and has such extraordinary benefits to people of all ages, just ask Elsie.

And what of reminiscence in our writing? How can it be a useful tool for us to create ideas and new work? I can only speak from personal experience but memories to me inform everything I write, even it if it is a recent memory. A vivid description the smell or taste of something can give your work authenticity. Descriptive passages can be useful to slow down the narrative and give the reader time to take in the world you’ve created. Above all your reminiscences are your own, they are what you know and we are often told to write what you know.

The first time I tried the map exercise, this came out


They gassed themselves in the garage,
Sitting inside a butterscotch Austin Allegro.

I’d clean his geranium pots with Jeyes fluid.
Orange squash and chocolate bars over drying terracotta

Pull your trousers down you cheeky little bastards.
He was going to thrash us, but he never did.

Rainbow sherbet, paper-bagged, off shelves;
Magnolia painted. Grey ladies, under the thatch.

I’ll admit it’s slightly disturbing but that is the nature of reminiscence. It can be unpredictable, but it is always interesting.

So why don’t you try it for yourselves. It doesn’t have to be your childhood home; it can be any house at any moment in your life.

Get a large, blank sheet of paper and a chunky felt-tip. Start with your bedroom and work out: your house, your street/road, your neighbours’ houses, the houses beyond. You don’t have to be able to draw, scribbles will do. Then when you have your map, make notes on the paper, things you remember, characters, moments…

And if you can’t remember anything immediately, why not see if you can remember the walnut trees…

Some related links that may be of interest:

A Sense of Memory – http://www.asenseofmemory.net

Reminiscence Network Northern Ireland – http://www.rnni.org

Pam Schweitzer –  http://www.pamschweitzer.com/

Age Exchange – http://www.age-exchange.org.uk/



About the author

Guy Le Jeune was born in England but has lived over half his life in Ireland. He currently lives in Donegal but spends a lot of time in Leitrim. He has read at the Irish Writers’ Centre, was commended in the 2011 Sean O’Faolain Prize and was short-listed for 2012 Fish Publishing Short Story Prize. He has also had some pieces of mini-flash fiction published on the London Literary Project Website. He is a member of the North West Writers’ Group in Donegal. He is currently working on a number of short stories and two novels. Guy is supported by the Donegal County Council Arts Office.

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