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Writing about Memory

@jaselinde asked, “I am currently writing a scene where a character begins to remember something from his past, but it comes in fragments during scenes. And it’s been really difficult for me to write these scenes with out making them seem really sudden and out of the blue… any advice?”

Have you ever read The Sound and the Fury by William Faulkner? Faulkner does an excellent job of showing the mind and memory of all of his character really, but for this question I thought of Benjy Compson. 

I’ll start off by saying, Faulkner’s a genius and still this book is considered pretty hard to follow, especially the first two sections told from the view points of Benjy and Quentin Compson. I won’t say that anyone try to write memory like Faulkner. That would be ridiculous, but I will say there are some things that maybe we can learn from him. 

First, you should know what triggers the memory. In The Sound and the Fury, Benjy first begins thinking about his sister Caddy after hearing someone call for a caddie on the neighboring golf course. The same-sounding name brings him into a memory. 

Next, there should be a way to tell apart now from then. Why is this something that can only have happened in the past? Why is it significant? Even if everything in the past could plausibly still happen, you might want to signpost a little more clearly that this is a different point in time. In The Sound and the Fury, we are able to differentiate Benjy’s present from two different pasts he remembers through Benjy’s different caretakers. There is a different caretaker for each point in his life to help better differentiate the three timelines.

Last, memory is fluid. Memory is subjective, changeable, and doesn’t have to act the way a present-tense scene would. It’s personal. I don’t want to say that this is something that has to or even should be expressly worked into your own writing on memory, but it could be a fun and interesting dynamic.

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