Essay one

On postcards; or, staying in touch

When I was little, I used to love writing postcards.

I loved the ritual of them. I’d choose postcards from those spinning stands set upon the bar of some small streetside city café while my parents sipped dark, bitter coffee at a wobbly, marble-topped table perched upon the pavement. Or else, I’d buy them from the village store while my parents shopped for bread and milk to stock the fridge in whichever remote cottage we happened to be staying in. I’d sit and write them with my father’s ink pen (for he always kept one in his pocket) and then I’d paste the stamps one-by-one, licking them as I’d go, marvelling at the size of the foreign ones, so much dinkier than the English ones. Searching for a postbox was always a tribulation, often requiring unnecessary detours. There is never a postbox when you need one.

As a little girl, my postcard choices were sweetly infantile: an ice cream, a horse, a flower. As a teenager, I learnt to stay away from the tackier, touristier postcards and instead chose those that seemed a little more artful, the kind you’d want to tape to your wall. So, depending on our location, I might have chosen a vintage bike with a basket of flowers pushed up against a stone wall; a black-and-white night scene of a city’s romantic monument lit up like stars; a blue sky spread over a vast stretch of sand, the two melting into each other like butter.

The postcards always arrived long after we returned home, of course, but the point remains: I wrote these postcards to my friends and to our neighbours because I liked the idea of telling them what we were doing. Even as a child, I quite simply liked the idea of remembering what we had done.

Later, in my university years, I wrote postcards to my best friends and the boys I had secretly kissed without my mother knowing because even though we could text or email or message each other on social media (back then was still not so long ago!) there was still something so thrilling about sending, and indeed, receiving post through the door. Those postcards were self-conscious writing endeavours and, most likely, terribly contrived as you would expect between a bunch of literature undergrads. Without even necessarily addressing each other, we would swap bits of poetry, song lyrics, coded secrets hidden from the inevitable family members who would read the back of our postcards as they stacked them upon the kitchen table. I have a few of these postcards still (on the receiving end) and even though in some ways they make no sense, in other ways they do so perfectly. In one or two words, I can recall the references we used to make, the stories we used to tell each other. I can recall the time in which they were written.

These postcards make me smile because they make me remember something; a moment, a feeling, a whispered conversation at night. They make me remember what it felt like to be that girl, back then. I don’t want to be that girl again, not now, not in this life, but I like knowing who she was. I like remembering who I was.

A good idea to keep in touch

Joan Didion once wrote:

We forget all too soon the things we thought we could never forget. We forget the loves and the betrayals alike, forget what we whispered and what we screamed, forget who we were. I have already lost touch with a couple of people I used to be…

...It is a good idea, then, to keep in touch
— Joan Didion

It is this sense of keeping in touch with oneself, of quite simply remembering what you have done, whether it was earlier today or a decade ago, that has inspired the creation of Postcards Home.

I called this course Postcards Home not because I want you to spend your summer kindling friendships through the good, old-fashioned post (although that too is not altogether a bad way to spend one’s time) but because I want you to keep in touch with who you once were.

If you hope to someday write about your life, write about the moments that have shaped you both small and not small at all, if you are drawn to the concept of memoir, if you want to capture your present before it passes you by, then you need to take some time to remember who you once were but also recognise who you are now.

And so: I want you to write down the stuff of the skies that made you cry, that made your heart surge, that also made you feel nothing at all. I want you to let yourself be vulnerable, to bear witness to your own past, to hold it in your palm. I want you to capture your memories, to start to pluck them down as they float past like dandelion seeds and pin them someplace in your present. In short: I want you to remember who you used to be.

On memoir and writing personally

What is memoir, if not a chance to reflect upon, to think about, to remember the moments that have shaped you, and then to write of it all in a way that might enable someone else to see a little bit of themselves in there too? When I write, whether it’s for another book or merely for a blog post, this is all I try to do.

Beth Kephart, a fine memoirist whose work I admire, once wrote that:

Memoir yearns to understand what a life means.
— Beth Kephart

She’s talking about memoir as books, of course, but I believe there’s no reason why that can’t also extend to first-person blogs too, the sort of posts you or I might try to write, or essays or simply journals too.

It’s this idea of remembrance that inspired me to write Postcards Home. Throughout the writing of these essays, I have mostly avoided using the words “writing your memoir” because I don’t want to frighten you away. For most people, the word “memoir” instantly brings to mind some big, heavy book all about their life. No writer, aspiring or otherwise, wants to be confronted with the somewhat terrifying prospect of writing any sort of big book straight away.

It’s worth acknowledging here, though, that a memoir is not really a big book all about your life or its entire details (that’s an autobiography, best left to the likes of Michelle Obama - and I touch more on this in a later essay). A memoir is not about writing merely of the things that have simply happened to you in a chronological way, but rather how those things changed you. How they moved you, shaped you, made you more of who you are today.

While we might not all be able to simply sit down and write our memoirs, we can at least start to catalogue some of our more meaningful memories together, for these are the little vignettes that might eventually loop together and tell a story, a story that might just show who we are and what it is that makes us real. A story that helps us understand what our lives mean.

How to remember

It’s not always easy to remember; I know that. For the longest time, I was convinced I could not remember anything of being a child. I had no memory of being seven or eight or younger. My mother would tell me all these stories about places we’d been to on holiday or birthday parties or relatives we once met with regularity but whose names drew nothing but a blank for me. I sort of assumed that I should remember these little things with a click of a finger, but our memories do not work like that. At some point, I realised I had to work at remembering, and that only I could do that myself. It is, in turn, worth remembering that our memories do not owe us anything; rather, we are obliged to them. We owe it to our past moments, the ones that shaped us, to work hard, then, to capture them.

I know what you’re thinking. You’re thinking you can’t remember enough, or that it’s all patchy, or worried that perhaps what you remember isn’t true. But what is our personal truth, if not subjective? And if you can’t remember enough, I’ll bet it’s been a while since you truly, deeply, tried.

It is hard to remember how a moment made you feel. But being alone and away from the internet helps with this. Closing your eyes does too, although it sounds zany. Summoning up an event or a face or a name that feels vague sort of helps me journey there, to that moment or that place, in my head and a picture begins to appear. I’ll be honest, I can’t quite explain this. And I can’t guarantee that this will work for you or that simply by closing your eyes, you’ll magically conjure up memories from when you were two (does anyone remember being two?). But I do think that making time to remember is part of the work of it. It is part of the work of being a writer.

The sub-title above, How to remember, is misleading, because of course, there’s no one, single, finite way. Your memory might be waiting for you in obvious places, like a shoe box of letters, or old photographs. Or it might surprise you when you least expect it, like the smell of the dry, hot air in the land of your ancestors that hits you hard in your face the moment you step off the plane (and years later, this smell might unfold in the creases of your mother’s wedding trousseau, packed up for decades in the loft of your family home and that smell alone might take you back to those long, hot childhood summers spent so far away). Or else it might feel effortless and, your memories might come back to you like lemon drops, fizzy surprises, snatched through the fading of a song, a taste upon a spoon, a face in a crowd. But the more you practice making time to remember, the more you stay open and aware of the possibilities, the more you won’t just let these little nudges from the past pass you by (and I’ll bet there’s at least one hundred memories that just pass us by every single day).

For me, I forever associate moments in my head (my memory) with the quality of the light, the way it falls through trees or dapples on my skin or drips through a cloud - and it amazes me how just a moment of a cloud shifting one way or another suddenly brings literally five minutes of my past back to life. I have no idea why; I guess my mind just works this way. A shaft of sunlight on a paved street can take me back in an instant to sitting on a white-washed wall with my eldest brother outside a beach house in Cadiz. He had just shaved his head, in an act of teenage rebellion; my mother was still mad with him. I remember watching him rub his hands repeatedly over his bare scalp, in awe of his spectacular nonchalance; it was the first time it dawned on me that, perhaps, I too might one day be so bold as to break the rules. Somedays I might be in the park with my kids, an entirely normal day, when the sun happens to fall through the trees and the way it ebbs and flows reminds me inexplicably of that day everyone from my university halls went sailing just as our first year was about to end. In the shadows of that dancing light lay the bittersweetness of a long summer apart from each other. That light reminds me of being twenty, of feeling like I had found the people I wanted to live with forever and ever. It reminds me of hope.

I guess what I’m trying to say is: you may insist you can’t remember. But then somehow, you almost always do. Some parts you have to work at. Others simply show themselves - but you have to be alert enough to spot them. Memory is like magic; it’s invisible but then all of a sudden, pop! It’s there - but not before it’s gone again. So be quick. Spot it before it goes.

You could argue that this act of remembering has nothing to do with writing at all. But I think it does. Because being in tune with yourself at a heightened, self-aware level is what being a writer, being any kind of writer, is all about. And so when you write in first person, you must be acutely aware - not just of yourself, but of what is around you. There’s a certain sensitivity to all of this; colours look brighter, tastes are stronger, emotions run through you. Indifference is no longer an option. This is not to say that all writers are wildly emotional but, rather, that as a writer in first-person, a writer of yourself, you learn to allow yourself to be open, to be pervious, to feel. This takes some practice. Learning to sit with yourself and allowing yourself to remember the moments of your past is one simple way to begin.

In next week’s essay, this becomes more tangible; you will literally begin to craft your skills of observation simply by noting those observations down. Taking the time to observe, to notice, to feel the sights, smells, sounds of our everyday, to catalogue them through language that is both rich and expressive yet also simple, is another way to do this. But like I said, it takes practice to stretch your skills of observation, to be open and sensitive not just to ourselves but to others.

To be able to recognise the quality of the light on any particular day or the way his face darkens from disappointment or hers softens with content, is ultimately what enables us to look beyond ourselves. It enables us to capture the texture of our everyday. To look beyond ourselves.

For now though, I simply ask you to look back. Spend awhile remembering who you used to be. Unearth the items that remind you of your teens, your twenties, your childhood: another time. Re-read those old letters, love ones or perhaps those written by parents or friends or others since passed on. I’m not asking you to go away and write about any of these things - not yet. I’m simply asking you to allow yourself to hold those memories in your hands, to cup them close to your ear like ivory sea shells. Listen to the whispers of the past. Let yourself begin to remember. Because what you hear, what you decipher, might explain a little bit of who you are today.


Notes to remember

Writing about yourself or moments in your life, writing in a personal, intimate way, doesn’t have to be confined to the traditional definition of memoir as a book. Your blog can be a memoir too, or a collection of essays or simply an on-going file you keep on your computer and hope to write and present to your loved ones one day.

When you write about or even just think about your memories, don’t write (or think) just about the events - of the then this happened, then this, then this. Memoir-style writing is not about recounting these sort of big, event-like details defined by dates and places and people in attendance. It’s more about the other details, the smaller details. As Kephart says, memoir is not just about what happened, it’s about what it meant. So think about the moments that changed you. The moments that moved you, shaped you, made you more of who you are today. I’ll bet those moments are tucked into your everyday, rather than listed in a calendar from a decade ago.

Dig out old diaries and journals, letters and photographs. Don’t see this as homework to tick off a list. See it as a chance to remember who you used to be.

Next week

An instructive yet inspiring essay on writing mini-memories on note-form. Have some postcards ready!


Postcards Home

On postcards; or, staying in touch

Mini-memories, in note form

The little things

A life lived in pictures

The beauty of the ordinary