Bi-weekly chatter about how looking closely at some of the most common expressions in everyday life can prompt new ways of thinking about our writing.
As usual and, at first, I am lost in the music. Then comes the video on the screen, illuminating images, one by one, of the man whose memorial service I am attending, the husband of very close family friend. The blurred, grainy old photos (the best kind, right?) and the retro tunes get me good. I sink deeper into the hardwood of the church pew and continue to watch this man’s life unfold on the monitor up above. Vacations. Golf outings. Holiday meals. New babies. Birthday cakes. And candles. I’m surprised to see a television monitor in a church, but, at this moment, I am grateful for it. The wooden pews may be hard but softness permeates the space. Music and old pictures can do that.
When the tunes and video stop, the program begins, and words follow. Words from those who loved this man. Who lived with this man. Who worked with this man.
Each offering is different, framed and shaped by the speaker’s personality and the relationship to the deceased. There is one constant, though, one phrase that shows up in almost all of stories: I remember.
I remember this. I remember that.
Stained glass catches the light. I listen.
I’m teaching. The class is Creative Nonfiction and my university students are working on a timed-writing exercise, one that involves choosing a prompt and writing freely for about 15 minutes. This week’s theme: hands. Some students write in notebooks, some on laptops.
I look at the timer on my phone. “Okay, one minute left,” I say, “start pulling it around.” Many look up from their work. Some even give off that familiar writerly look, the one that suggests this: Ideas are really starting to flow here and I need to get them down on this page before I forget!
“And remember this is rough and only a start. Be kind to yourself,” I say. And then, “Time’s up.”
We take a minute. Or two. Then the floor is open for those who want to share.
A student in the back row reads his short memoir piece, a recollection of a time in an arcade when he encountered the help of a stranger. This was an exchange, one that happened in his early boyhood, that began with an outstretched hand. Almost every line starts with the words, I remember. It’s succinct, detailed and poignant. The repetition is melodic and intoxicating.
For the second time in a matter of 48 hours I am semi-hypnotized by the power of these two words.
What I heard in that church and in our classroom this past week was the natural and seemingly unintentional application of, for the purpose of this column, I’ll call The Joe Brainard Method. If it sounds like I am blaming Joe Brainard, I am. But, trust me, this is the good kind of blame.
For over a decade now, I’ve carried Joe Brainard’s book I Remember into most of my classrooms. I happen to love the look and feel of my copy, too, which helps. It’s a small, super-flexible paperback that can fit in my back pocket. (Not that I keep it there all that much but it’s faded yellow in color and was originally published in 1975 so how could I resist the back pocket reference?) This volume, all 167 pages, is a collection of I remembers. It’s been called a memoir and an “oblique biography”. Olivia Laing in The Guardian sees it as an “assemblage of memories, a collage pieced together from snippets and stray thoughts.”
No matter what it’s called by those who label books in curious ways, I say it’s more than a book. It’s a collection of moments. It’s a list of noticings. To use a phrase borrowed from Sandra Cisneros, it’s “a jar of buttons.” In this case, the Brainard variety.
“I remember pink dress shirts. And bola ties.”
“I remember my first cigarette. It was a Kent.”
“I remember fancy little bathroom towels not for using.”
“I remember Judy.”
Now try this:
If you believe, as I do, that a list can be a powerful tool to get words onto a blank page and way to generate potential story starts, then try creating your own collection of I remembers. If you need structure, set a timer to maybe 15 or 30 minutes, and start writing your memories with the words I remember introducing each one.
Once you have the number you want (or the timer goes off) read the lines a few times.
Look at the sequencing. Do you want to move any around? If so, why?
Spend a few minutes and notice how the senses are represented. Add or subtract things as you see fit.
Read the next version out loud. Highlight or circle the ones that have the most energy, the ones that you feel most connected to, the ones you believe have the most promise.
Keep the list going and see where it takes you.
One more thing: the next day you have a block of time to do some intentional listening while out in the world, take note of how often you hear people use I remember. There’s a reason it’s a common expression and one that serves as connective tissue in churches and classrooms among many other places on this planet. As Brainard notes about the writing of this book: “I mean, I feel like I am not writing it but that it is because of me that it is being written. I also feel that it is about everybody else as much as it is about me.”
Honor your memories, no matter how tiny. Write them down. Let them flow.
I remember this. I remember that.