July 4, 2016
Memory is a passion no less powerful or pervasive than love. What does it mean to remember? It is to live more than one world, to prevent the past from fading and to call upon the future to illuminate it. It is to revive fragments of existence, to rescue lost beings, to cast harsh light on faces and events, to drive back the sands that cover the surface of things.” – Elie Wiesel
Elie Wiesel’s powerful memories and writings were a sort of scaffolding of my Jewish upbringing. I read Night long before my bat mitzvah. I understood the importance of keeping memories alive long before I ever dreamed of being a writer. I brought my children to hear him speak in 2006 at Dartmouth College. Here is a bit of what he said:
Memory tells us that the past is in the present, even when it is not unraveled.
Memory has its own archeology, its own mystery, its own language. If not complacent or intimidated, it will enrich your aspirations and commitments. What would culture, education or indeed civilization be without its lasting and challenging appeal?
My memory, though rooted in the darkness of the abyss, has taught me the imperative of solidarity and friendship. My good friends, when I came to those places and in those places people told us then don’t think about anyone but yourself. That is how you will survive. And they were wrong. Only those who thought of others, anyone who had a friend or a father or a brother or simply a comrade for whom he or she cares, he or she had a better chance to live, and therefore to survive.
My memory had taught me that my humanity is defined by yours. Even when my faith is different from yours, it is neither superior nor inferior in its authenticity. Is its name tolerance? No: tolerance could suggest condescendence, and I prefer the word ‘respect’. It also means: respect for your freedom and mine and for the freedom of those who have no freedom. I am free not because someone is not but because he or she is. And if their freedom is curtailed, mine is blemished.
Elie Wiesel spoke for all of us.
Since hearing of his death, I’ve been thinking about his life and the importance of memories. And how little ones escape our subconscious at the oddest of times. I’ve also thought about how our memories change over time. Pain and insult can dull, and how with time and perspective, we see more. With age, we gain a point of view to add texture to the original.
As writers for young readers, childhood memories are certainly important. Those first early memories–unchanged by logic and knowledge–are a big source of inspiration. In fact, I have recently found another benefit of playing and thinking and planning more–I have been able to access more memories. When I sit down at the notebook before the manuscript, when I draw and relax and let my mind meander, I remember new details. I can pull the old pictures into focus. I can use those memories to fortify my writing.
This is the power of our memories–and they are all unique and important. We remember incidents that brought joy and pain. We remember hard lessons learned. We remember when we resisted. When we lied. When we felt shame. When we felt courage. When we remember, we invite all the senses to join us. We start with memory and then enter a sort of dream state, so that we can feel those first emotions, so we can impart those emotions onto the reader.
Through memory, we can access emotion, setting, origin stories, problems, the interior strife. Memory is a launching point. (But remember: you can’t cling to it. Sometimes, you have to forget about what really happened and imagine a new outcome.)
In 1987, Wiesel wrote this in the NY Times. It’s a beautiful piece. This section, in particular, made me pause:
What about my faith in you, Master of the Universe?
I now realize I never lost it, not even over there, during the darkest hours of my life. I don’t know why I kept on whispering my daily prayers, and those one reserves for the Sabbath, and for the holidays, but I did recite them, often with my father and, on Rosh ha-Shanah eve, with hundreds of inmates at Auschwitz. Was it because the prayers remained a link to the vanished world of my childhood?
Today, in honor of Elie Wiesel’s life, let’s return to our childhood memories.
Open up your journal and write about one of your darkest hours–the first one you think of. Describe the room. Describe the backstory. Describe the people you loved at that moment. Relive the conflict. The heartache. The pain. Try not to impose your adult sensibilities.
Then remember how you emerged from this moment. How did you change? How did you grow? Did you remain friends with the people in your story? Why does this moment remain in your memory? Or is it something you tucked away until you were asked to relive it? Then leave this memory and find a triumphant one. Journal about that, too.
Back to Wiesel in 2006:
And that is also true of hope, the most vital element of all human equations. War is an act of despair. Peace of a song of and for hope. And my fervent desire has always been to create a hope that is not someone else’s nightmare.
None of us are made of all triumph or all sorrow. Our stories do not always directly reflect our memories, but they are fueled by them. As writers, we speak for ourselves, and we speak for others and we are writing for children. This is not a small thing to do. We write of triumph and pain. We do this with empathy and a desire to make the world better.
Have a wonderful writing week.