Memory, Friction and Fiction

This week readers of Quiver and Tremble will be pleased to know I have started a new collection of short stories called ‘Impossible Loves.’ Originally I planned for this to be a series of stories about the relationships we don’t have in our lives, or rather the near misses that, after a certain age, seem to haunt us as ‘what ifs…’. Years ago I wrote a play called ‘Seven Acts of Love (as witnessed by a cat), which touched upon this theme. It was seven acts of love – one of which was the reunion of two older people who almost had an affair when university students and have re met in their forties, both now married and committed to other people. Although tempted they decide not to make love out of respect and love for their spouses and the ensuing chaos they can envisage the affair will cause – the ‘evolved ‘choice I guess although I’m happy to concede that sometimes the forces of nature are greater.

 The act is really about nuance and subtext – what is not said and the terrible poignancy of missed opportunity as well as the preservation of memory and projection. Impossible Loves is really a further investigation of this – although somewhat more bawdy and visceral.

In the writing of the first story I began to think about how writers draw upon their own autographical experience and elaborate pushing observed fact into fiction. It’s interesting what one remembers and why and the methods to access memory. First of all I should clarify that usually I rarely (if ever and certainly not consciously) write autobiographically. There are a few exceptions when I have been asked specifically – the most notable was a short story called ‘27th of August’ which was written for a collection of short stories by women the proceeds of which were to go to troubled teenage girls in Australia. I wrote about the day my father was killed in a road accident. I was aged 16 at the time and it seemed deeply appropriate as I did then go onto a wild and troubled adolescence (grist to the mill!).

Another time was when I was asked to contribute a story to a collection of short stories by Jewish Australian writers. I decided to write about both my grandfathers – my English/Polish grandfather (my father’s father) and my mother’s father, also Polish but from a far more recent migration out of Poland (narrowly missing the holocaust, unlike a lot of his relatives, father and brother). My mother’s father was an absolute character – a very handsome and short pastry baker who loved women. In the short story I had added a wonderful paragraph about how, after burying his third wife (in Sydney in about 100 degrees) my grandfather (with myself sitting in the back) my social worker mother at the wheel, – probably due to shock and a strange grieving – started a wonderful soliquy (in a thick Yiddish/Polish accent) about all the women he’d ever slept with, started with my grandmother (his first wife) – both of them virgins not knowing a thing about lovemaking. with his mother-in-law sleeping on the couch a foot away on the other side of the bedroom door for nights, waiting for the bloodied sheet to hang out the window to prove the marriage was consummated. He then continued through a liturgy of women, ending up (far later when I guess he was in his sixties) with a description of an act performed sans false teeth. Meanwhile my mother (only half-listening) in social worker mode kept nodding and answering Yes abba, yes abba, as the monologue got funnier, darker and increasing obscene until I asked her to tell him to stop. It was above and beyond Portnoy’s Complaint and was, in some ways, a very poignant insight into a man who was both a sensualist and an incurable romantic. He was forever in falling love (god bless him) right up until he died in his late eighties. When I showed this earlier draft to my mother she threatened to disinherit me, claiming it was disrespectful – maybe it was, however the intention certainly wasn’t. I pulled the paragraph from the finished short story and the experience put me off ever writing directly about my wonderful, eccentric family. Yet there is a certain authenticity in autographical writing that the readers seem hungry for – hence the current spate of false autobiography most of whom have been outed. Inevitably fact is stranger than fiction, but in my case it is usually based on some experience teased out into fully fiction – a montage of friends and projection. Even so I was amazed by the number of friends who claimed they recognised themselves in Quiver when it came out (they weren’t!). I think it all comes down to the writer’s powers of observation, imagination and ability to create empathic characters. This probably reflects on how vividly they have or haven’t lived.

One method to recall memory or a specific experience one might want to write about – an experience that might be buried due to trauma or simply forgetfulness – is self-hypnosis. I find that this can throw up all kinds of remembered experience – from light thrown up from a surface:  the actual visuals of the memory, to scent and emotion. Memories you thought you’d lost forever. Useful when one is trying to ‘channel’ a character, or throw oneself back to the experience of first passion, adolescence and loss.