My recent trip to England reminded me again–and I love this–that history really IS about story. Everywhere you go, things are really OLD! From bridges to buildings, paintings and sculpture, castles and country houses. Not “old” the way Americans think of it–ready to be refurbished or torn down–but old as in venerated, full of meaning. The very stones, windows, and railings tell the story of who built the building, when, under what conditions, how it was bombed and then rescued in WWII, or bombed and a ruin, but with a colorful alive garden waving in the breeze.
I listened to Evensong in one of the almost-casualties of WWII–St. Paul’s Cathedral, designed by Sir Christopher Wren. I sat in the choir part of the church–which is at the top end of the cathedral, past the dome. The soprano voices of the boys mingled with the older men, the service ancient and traditional, also incorporated readings that were strikingly relevant to modern times–about how to live, deal with darkness and uncertainty, how to live with oneself in some kind of integrity. That’s how I translated it anyway. People from all over the world were visiting the cathedral, as they do every day, many of them sitting in Evensong under a dome that was bombed, a dome that far above their heads is made of 300 year old wooden struts and supports, where incendiary bombs sizzled until the fire watchers, the priest, and whoever else could get those fires put out were able to save the cathedral.
On one of my London walks, I noticed a lovely garden by some old church walls, another Christopher Wren church, but this one had burned down having been bombed, only a few walls remained. The stone walls were preserved, and a momument erected in honor of the building that had stood for 300 years, a garden set in place.
What does this have to do with our work as memoirists, you might ask. Memoirists are criticized for being stuck in the past, at least I have been–but it is a work of loving preservation to write our stories and capture the history that we have witnessed and lived through. We are planting gardens of memory, just as I saw there with the ruins of the Wren church, and inviting future generations to smell the flowers.
Memoir, Story, and History
When traveling, your senses are aligned to the details, so when you write your memoir, notice the details, the glowing reflection of light from windows, the grit and grain of wood or bricks, the sense you get from a location, setting, building, landscape or city. As the train passed by villages and crossed fields, I thought of the silent history of the centuries, when Shakespeare traveled by horse from Stratford on Avon to London, when London Bridge was the only way to get from the City to the other side of the theatre district–the “bad” side of town. Every cobblestone had a story to tell, and the Thames has witnessed millenia of human stories. When you are writing your memoir, you offer the reader this felt sense of your history through the details you give, you create a whole world where the reader is pulled in enough to use imagination to live in your shoes as you tell your story.
In London, I tuned into enough history to fill in the “how it must have been back then” parts of London’s many stories. How do you draw your reader in? Is your story part of the backdrop of the time you lived through? Create a well-rounded portrait, and your readers will eagerly follow you wherever you lead them.