Memories and Their Power

Ann Patchett says: I’m very sure that my memories are true and accurate, and if I put them up against the memories of my family or my friends, they would have very different true and accurate memories. Even if they differ from a sibling etc.

Salvador Dali, The Persistence of Memory

“You have your wonderful memories,” people said later, as if memories were solace. Memories are not. Memories are by definition of times past, things gone. Memories are the …faded and cracked photographs, the invitations to the weddings of the people who are no longer married, the mass cards from the funerals of the people whose faces you no longer remember. Memories are what you no longer want to remember.”
Joan Didion, Blue Nights

That’s Joan Didion, her words veering toward the negative. Because loss is tragic, hard, challenging. She longs for her daughter. That loss shakes up the foundations she depended on, and I applaud her words as a search for strength.

But can we be nostalgic when we are young? Yes.

Anne Frank was, writing in her diary of days past, knowing those days were gone, that her world was imploding and that she might never again sit in a classroom, walk the streets of Amsterdam free and unhindered, look forward to love, marriage and children.

Anyone who looks back in longing–for a friend, a house, a parent, an experience, can feel and write about their longings–this is nostalgia. You want something back, that you don’t want to forget.


There was a time when I began to write, that nostalgia seemed to propel me. Why? I was young, and I saw that my experience was in some ways limited. Some changes in my life had already happened (loss of a parent, early responsibilities as a result). And I saw that I didn’t want to relive my childhood, but that it dwelled within me, making my losses and gains part of me, the engine of my creativity.

Because when you write, you are either pulling things out of your own experience or making shit up. Both land on the page, and wow, you’re a writer. (Though not necessarily a good one. It takes time, lots of time. Maybe forever.)


When Author Ann Patchett (Bel Canto, The Dutch House, Commonwealth) takes a memory and infuses it with meaning, she then uses it in one of her novels. She describes her process this way: “I’m very sure that my memories are true and accurate, and if I put them up against the memories of my family or my friends, they would have very different true and accurate memories. Even if they differ…” Because we know that fiction comes from seeds of experience. IT COMES FROM LIFE, FROM LIVING. And what one person sees or hears or feels, can differ from another.


One of my favorite authors, Elizabeth Strout, discovered that her characters refused to stay within the pages of past books. Though Strout left her home in Maine for New York City, Maine stayed with her. So did the voice, the face, the life of Olive Kitterridge, the eponymous title of the collection of short stories that won Strout the Pulitzer for fiction.  But Olive wasn’t finished. She continued to speak to Strout, and thus Olive Again came to be, more stories that take us back to Maine, but also (and this is to amazing and clever) bring back characters from Strout’s other novels. It’s delightful for Olive to find herself living in the same senior facility as the mother from Amy and Isabel, that being only one example. After writing My Name Is Lucy Barton, Strout felt compelled to learn more about Lucy’s beginnings and sent her back to a small town in Illinois to reconnect with her siblings and other in a collection of stories, Anything Is Possible. We all do this: let our memories grow, fill out the stories of our lives, enhance them. At some level WE ARE ALL STORY TELLERS. 


Many of us kept or still keep a diary. It’s our lives on paper, our deepest thoughts and even our anger and our hurts. It’s not fiction, but it can fuel fiction and it always comes from the power of memory.

Talk to an old friend. Discover that the mention of a place, a high school crush, a certain teacher brings back a flood of memory. And though they aren’t always positive, they are part of our lives. Joan Didion wrote Blue Nights after losing her daughter. She wrote The Year of Magical Thinking after the death of her husband. Joan used the power of her memory, of her words to seek healing. Each and everyone of us is a vessel of stories. Write them down. They are part of you, and they have power. 

Can You Find Your Villain?

Can You Find Your Villain?

Last Sunday I listened to a discussion between two well known women writers, Louise Erdrich and Ann Patchett. It’s always fascinating to get their insights on creating fiction–but this exchange stood out for me. Patchett talked about creating her recent novel THE DUTCH HOUSE, and how she based a particular aspect of the novel on her own life.

FIRST: Here is a very partial summary from The Bibliofile, which tells you that the novel focusses on siblings, Maeve and Danny.

Maeve and Danny’s mother abandoned their family when they were young, so they are raised by their father and the household help instead. One day, their father brings home a woman, Andrea Smith, who he later marries. Their father is more interested in his real estate holdings than in them, and Maeve and Danny’s relationship with Andrea is fractious and later overtly hostile.

The New York Times review gives us another glimpse into major elements of Patchett’s story:  “The Dutch House” is a sibling story — that of Maeve and Danny Conroy, a brother and sister growing up comfortable in Elkins Park, Pa., in a house known throughout the community (and by the family) as the Dutch House…The children’s father purchased the house for his wife without telling her before the children were born — it is enormous, wildly elaborate, stuffed with the ornate furniture and outsize presence of the VanHoebeeks. Though they are dead, they are looming spirits — the Conroys never even take down the VanHoebeek portraits.


Patchett confesses in another interview, that after writing a complete version of this novel, she basically threw it away. There wasn’t enough tension. There wasn’t that push-pull between characters. The novel needed a villain to ramp up the tension. But who was the villain? 

Patchett then stated that her difficulty in writing the Dutch House was actually fueled by her own anxieties of becoming a stepmother. When she married Karl VanDevender, he brought two children to their marriage, Patchett fearing she would be unable to enter the proper mother role. Instead she saw herself as the stepmother who might bring unhappiness or worse to the family unit. We all know familiar tropes about stepmothers–Hansel and Gretel being an example. From Patchett’s fears grew the answer to reworking her novel. 

She states: The greatest lack I think in my body of work, if, God forbid, you were to read it all, is that I don’t write villains. I have this shortcoming that whenever I get too close to anybody, I become sympathetic to them. And I just really wanted a villain. That was why I wrote this book in first person, because all Danny (the novel’s narrator) knows is what Andrea (the stepmother) chooses to show him.


This discussion has made me reconsider the villains I encounter in my own writing, and in my reading and film watching. Now I want to consider if the creators of these fictions are pulling from their own personal experience to create tension, stress, climaxes–and maybe even the very villain that has center stage. Because we are human, we all have faults–we all can succumb to jealousy, anger, and the penchant to avoid or change the truth. Being human is a complex challenge for every one of us.

Patchett found herself lacking in the area of mothering another woman’s children and turned that fear or lack into a novel. That’s Patchett’s wheelhouse. Her strength. Some of us look back on past mistakes or actions and want to erase them. We then reach out to help others, becoming more observant of others’ needs. 

As a writer, I now want to look more closely at the antagonists in my work. I want to get inside their skin, reveal some of the fears, angers, even hatred I might have felt in my own life. That might create a villain–and yet it might also create a character who is willing to awaken one day and search for change. I think we all have a little of that in our lives. Patchett writes a novel to deal with it. We can reach out to those around us that we might have hurt or offended. It’s hard work, but we can do it.