Essay Two

Mini-memories, in note form

Pluck your memories! Pin them down! is what I wrote last week. Remember who you used to be!

I know what you’re thinking: but how?

I am aware that all of this sounds overwhelming. I am aware that I sound as though writing your memories over the course of one summer is as simple as taking a sugar dredger and dusting the top of an apple pie. But here’s the other reason I called this course Postcards Home: postcards. The key, you see, is in the brevity of it.

As I have said before, this course is not about writing your full-blown, full-length memoir. It is simply about getting started. Because to write a memoir, or even to write a first-person essay or just a blog post, you need to start somewhere and honestly, you need to start small (and there’s nothing wrong with starting small!). You need to learn to make observations, because what is a writer if not an observer, of both themselves and others? And so this is what Postcards Home is. So today, you’re starting small. You’re making observations in the present and remembering mini-memories from the past, but you’re doing it in short form, note form; simply jotting them down on the back of a postcard. My hope is that, suddenly, this doesn’t seem quite so overwhelming anymore.

Now, it is not as if I can take credit for coining the simple, basic and practical art of note-taking. I mean: we all do it! Even your daily to-do lists will tell a story. But when you’re taking notes because you want to write, you learn to spot the things that might one day spin a yarn. This is what writers do.  We watch people. We observe. We make notes, and not just in our head; we scribble them in notebooks or on postcards and then later, type them up quickly into on-going documents left forever open on our desktops. We shuffle our notes around, to understand them, to feel them, to start to make sense of them all so that we might flesh them out into something longer. When we eventually have enough notes, only then might we write something longer, draft after draft. Of course, not everybody writes this way. And everyone’s method is entirely subjective. But it is this - this layering of small words, this chipping away at the detail, this gathering of words and observations and memories as though they are sticks for a campfire - it is this hard work that leads to the promise of something more.

When people say they want to write, they expect all these words to arrive fully-formed and then when they don’t, they call it writer’s block, spectacularly avoiding writing at any cost. That’s not going to get you any closer to your dream of writing, of writing your story in your voice. But making brief, small notes is. It is both a practical way to break down a bigger story or essay or chapter into little tangible vignettes but it is also a productive way to be both visual - and see the overview of what it is you might construct and how you might switch things around - and literal at the same time. Acclaimed memoirist Marion Roach Smith writes about this process as “being hospitable” to yourself. In other words: making notes, literally taking notes, makes the task of writing easier. In other words: do yourself a favour.

Being hospitable means getting a stack of index cards and putting one in each pocket, in the back pocket of your jeans, and taking it out at the movies when you see someone make a great transition from one emotion to the next, making note of the spare gesture employed that conveyed the change. Write it down.
— Marion Roach Smith

So all I’m doing is simply asking you to practice writing snippets, little bits and pieces that might come to you in fits and starts. I’m asking you to observe and to process your present day. I’m asking you to think about all your other days too, pick out a memory, here and there. I’m asking you to jot down what the air felt that day you fell into the lake or what song was playing at the summer party when your little girl took her first faltering steps across the lawn and to describe the uncomprehending look on her face. These memories don’t even have to be fully formed. Crib notes will do. A word here or there. Just enough to fill a postcard or two, sent home, so to speak, to you.

Why? Because, firstly, my worry is that if we don’t take the time to write it down, to make these little notes, then we’ll forget the way all of this once made us feel. We’ll forget the way we grew. Because that’s just what happens. And how can you write about your present or your future without remembering your past?

And, secondly: if you want to write, well, you need to write. It really is as simple as that. Yet all too often I am asked: but how? How do I write? How do I begin? And the answer is not complicated. You begin by making space for writing. You begin by picking up a pen. Turn writing into a small, daily habit which only requires you to fill a card with some small notes and sentences each day and you are far more likely to stick with it than if I was to ask you to write 500 or 1000 words a day instead, which somehow seems frightening. You need to form the habit of writing in the first place - and if that habit can be a small, daily one, it makes writing easier.

Finally, making little notes on your world will ultimately give you something more tangible to work with. You need material, and you need to pin it down. Scribble that material on a postcard and you’ve got a beginning. You’ve got something to work with. Later you can learn how to craft it - but there is time for that. The first step is to simply start with something. Making and taking the time to observe, and to write those observations down, gives you material. So take the notes first - and then craft them, shape them, exaggerate them, add your imagery and your dialogue and your prose will start to form. But like I said, this will come later; there’s time for that. (And for some of you, I’d refer you to look at my more in-depth writing course on the craft of writing creatively, The Quiet Words, on how to really refine your writing into something creatively expressed).

I have written before that Postcards Home is about starting small. And I want you to know that there is nothing wrong with starting small, because starting small is much better than gazing wistfully at our desks, dreaming of being writers but yet not doing a single thing about it. Starting small is, at least, starting.

Your task, then

I know. I know I said there would hardly be any homework in Postcards Home. But hardly is not the same as none at all and so here it is, just a little. Only, I’d rather you don’t think of it as homework. This is not another burden to beat yourself up about; another obligation to fit in. See this as an inspirational challenge instead. Are you up to it? I sure do hope so. Here it is.

Buy a stack of postcards. Blank ones, pretty ones; whatever. Keep them on your desk. And then every day, for the duration of one month, take one postcard from that pile. Fill it with notes: a memory of the past, or a set of observations on the present. One day, one postcard. Brevity, you see?

Stick with it for one month and who knows, maybe you’ll have enough notes and observations and ideas stacked up by the end of it that maybe then you’ll have an idea of what you want to write about for your first dozen personal blog posts or the essay collection you’ve dreamt of or the memoir you wanted to write for your family. The bigger picture will come. But for now: take it one detail at a time.

I don’t want to fill this course with prompts because I feel that prompts can sometimes be limiting, if you can’t connect with them. I have found that, often, writers feel that they owe everything to a prompt instead of to what’s already existing in their head. So instead of offering you a list of well-meaning suggestions on what to write about, I’d rather encourage you to let yourself feel free. Note down whatever takes your fancy. The taste of your coffee, the weekend away, the blandness of your office, the sounds of your journey to where you’re headed. If you still dread the blankness of a page as tiny as the size of a postcard, then don’t panic - there’s a whole essay on looking for details coming up next week. Just don’t consider them the be-all-and-end-all-of writing prompts because, honestly? There’s no such thing.

A literal note to yourself

Postcards, notecards, recipe cards, index cards: you can call these notes, scribbled on little pieces of stiff paper, whatever you want. You could buy a bunch of plain postcards. You could buy a bunch of lined ones. You could buy a bunch of pretty ones. You could even print off a whole set of your own. Take some of these cards with you on holiday. Slip one into your summer paperback, use it as a bookmark until that one glorious day when you don’t want to forget what it is that you have done, how it is that you felt for that five minutes when the sun fell on the back of your neck, and then pull it out. Note that moment down. File it. Stack it. Use it in your next blog post. Either way, the more moments you note down, the richer your bank of creative inspiration for the next time you come to write something more complete.

Incidentally? This is what I do. This is quite literally how I write, how I gather stories like moss and how I work. It’s not groundbreaking. And sure, it'’s not the same as spending a summer in some airy writer’s retreat with no wifi but charming views. But practically? Note-taking on the back of postcards or post-it notes or wherever has helped me through decades of writing, even helped me to somehow forge a writing career.

Sure, you could draft your observations on your notes in your phone. Make life easier for yourself. Or, you could always try recording your notes as a voice-memo. (And a note on this - recording your voice is a great resource especially if you find it hard to pick up a pen and get started. But there’s something to be said for having a little box of cards ready for you to reach right into. It is, quite literally, a way to tangibly piece together the puzzle of what it is you want to write). But my point is: it is easier to write on the back of a small postcard, where the space to fill is finite, than it is to tap endlessly into your phone. This is how you train yourself to stick to the good bits. And it’s the good bits that will make your stories worth telling.

So remember: if you want to write, you have to start somewhere. Writing postcards to yourself, filled with notes and observations on your everyday, is arguably the most enjoyable way to begin. Think of it as a gift.


Notes to remember

Make life easier for yourself. Don’t frighten yourself off with writer’s block before you’ve even started. All you have to do is write a few notes on the back of a postcard. That’s infinitely easier than staring at an endless document on your screen, willing yourself to write a first chapter or a first post with which to launch your personal blog. There’s nothing wrong with starting small, because at least you’re starting somewhere.

Humour me. Buy that stack of postcards. You may be dubious, but play with the possibilities. Make notes on the weather, the light, the day; eavesdrop if you must. Simply fall into a habit of writing something small, every single day. Remember the only way to write is to, well, actually write. (There’s plenty more next week to help your note-taking along).

Next week

An essay on noticing the little things that might infuse your writing with that writer’s heightened sense of awareness, which I wrote of last week.


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