I’m writing this at the spring equinox with the first anemones in the hedgerows. Blackthorn blossom has arrived, and catkins too. It is a time of year when I can vividly conjure the village where I grew up, when it was as if we were emerging from hibernation - a time of boxes bulging with saved up sweets and chocolates, shining like jewels waiting for Lent to end; a time of new clothes for Easter, of dressing up for Patrick’s Day races; my Granda taking our pocket money to the bookies to put a bet for us on the Grand National. In my mind, I can take myself on various routes around the village and its lanes and hedges, which you somehow knew so intimately as a child.
All of us have places that live with us long after we cease to live there. In Albert Camus’s novel L’Etranger, Meursault “learns to remember” in prison to stave off boredom. He tells how he would visualise the room he had lived in, making a circuit of it and taking note of everything he saw along the way. But each time he did this, the circuit took longer to complete, since “the more I thought about it, the more I dug out of my memory things I had overlooked or forgotten”. This leads to the now famous assertion that, “a man who had lived only one day could easily live for a hundred years in prison. He would have enough memories to keep him from being bored.”
Pick a place
The process of memoir writing involves “learning to remember” and this month I’d like you to think of a place that has special meaning to you. It might be a city, a town, a village, or it could be a house or even a room. Close your eyes and take yourself back to it. Give yourself time, space and quiet to think about what you see in your mind’s eye. Think about smells, sounds and sensations. Another exercise you can do to aid memory is to create your own map of your special place. You don’t have to be an artist to do this, but somehow simply giving yourself that permission to draw, to do something you’d have done unselfconsciously as a child, will help you bring a place to life and remember previously forgotten details.
Houses can be especially evocative in our memories. Think of David Thomson’s beautiful Woodbrook, Waugh’s Brideshead, Scarlet O’Hara’s Tara. These are houses that become almost mythical and in which every doorknob carries a story or association. These are all “big” houses where there is a sense of accumulated story over generations and time. But ordinary houses can be just as evocative. The Dublin writer Maeve Brennan went back again and again in her writing to her family home in Ranelagh, conjuring the grain and turn of the banister as though she was running her hand newly over it. Hilary Fannin says, “We all have a palace of rooms in our head that we can enter at will and just walk around.”
Find the wonder
The Northern Irish writer, Wendy Erskine, has just edited a lovely collection called Well I just kind of like it in which she asks people to write about the art they chose to have in their own homes. In it, we get a glimpse of the ordinary domestic spaces in which the art works live. In her own piece, she writes of where “a tub of yoghourt sits next to Flash all-purpose cleaner. On top of a microwave there is an orchid plant and a set of Russian dolls.
“There are tea-towels, a box of paper for recycling, piles of bills. …Above the bin and in close proximity to both the handle of a brush and a calendar in which no one ever writes engagements, is an unframed A2 print of Het Straatje [The Little Street] by Vermeer.”
In the introduction to the book, Erskine says that in thinking of the art in our homes we might then look at those homes differently too - seeing the wonder in the every day. To some extent this is what memoir does. It makes wonder out of our ordinary lives.
So I invite you, as Hilary Fannin says, to “Sit yourself down and open a door and walk into your life”.
Share your memoir about a place for potential publication, email firstname.lastname@example.org