Tuesday, October 25, 2005

PH: Triggers—Evoking Memory to Create Story

Following the death of both my mother and father, I was in such an emotional gauntlet. I had to face many things that were hidden and kept secret by my family, and face them alone without ever having had them talked about or made right. The retrospection induced all sorts of reactions. Those particular reactions became the basis for my novel Katrina’s Wings.

After that experience, I realized that if I paid close attention to life I could practice culling the emotion of life, pain, suffering, delirious joy, from the truth and weave it into fiction and never run out of plots. The culling process involves keeping either a written or a mental diary of emotional triggers. A baby shoe falls out of a drawer and my emotions are awash with melancholy.

Why? I sit down and write down the feelings generated by the trigger’s sudden presence. Up to the surface bobs something I wouldn’t normally associate with one of my children’s old shoes—the loss of those days, the naïveté of early motherhood, the terror of holding a child and feeling responsible for its life. I walk into a swim arena and the smell of chlorine triggers mental snapshots of growing up near a municipal park. I write down the feelings evoked and a meaning is attached to that memory, the relationship between past and present, how the past works to shape the present. I weave the retrospection into character and now I’ve revealed my character in a showing manner to the reader.

The reader’s emotions are engaged by the bare honesty and now through character the story has its engine. Triggers do not come in definable shapes. In the midst of a Bible study, something an author wrote triggered an emotion in me I could not identify. I ran and wrote down the emotions while they were fresh. I wrote and wondered and, as Christ’s mom did when she could not define all that she had seen, I pondered. Three days passed and suddenly I realized that profound meaning from my past was beating its way to the surface of lost memory. I couldn’t write fast enough, the words pouring out of me.

This story went from journal to memoir to thesis to novel over the course of the year. It started with a trigger that initially had no obvious form. We tend to cast off or ignore such thoughts because we cannot define them or reduce them to plot summary. But we cannot see spirit either.

If you’ve struggled to try and shape your story out of a plot, try using raw emotional material. Trusting those emotional triggers is the key to filling the writer’s toolbox with oceans of useable material. Memory is a gift from the writer to her readers offering a vantage point not otherwise afforded them. It helps us understand why so many novels were started on coffee-stained napkins.

Patricia Hickman is the author of Katrina's Wings


At 10:54 AM, Blogger Val said...

Thanks for sharing this, Patricia. I had never thought of using a journal to track my emotional triggers like that. I do try to use them in my writing, but I know that I don't capture them fully because I've lost the intensity from when I was first hit with that wave of emotion.

At 2:38 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I, too, have kept notes of emotional triggers or even how a certain stranger appears to me, conversations overheard, reactions observed. It is always best to capture them at the moment because at valmarie said later they lose their intensity.

At 3:40 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I agree, Vasthi, scribble them down on something when its fresh. I've use a lot of post-its, slapped them in a file, pulled them out as needed. And a journal. Maybe once a napkin.


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