I’ve just finished reading Henry Handel (or as I like to call her Ettie) Richardson’s memoir, Myself When Young.
I’ve been a fussy reader recently, picking up the latest literary best sellers, then putting them down again, unfinished. This though, I read all the way to the end.
Even though H.H. died before she’d completed the manuscript, her notes and her husband’s jottings were used to flesh out the final section. I found it a fascinating read. Not only because it gave us a woman’s perspective of Australia in the late 19th century, but also because her writing is such a pleasure. Clean and clear. Her voice carried me through, even without a plot driving the story forward. Even though she was writing almost one hundred years ago.
Her life wasn’t easy. Her father died young and the family struggled, despite their middle-class privilege. But she knew this:
“To a writer, experience was the only thing that really mattered. Hard and bitter as it might seem, it was to be welcomed rather than shrunk from, reckoned as a gain and not a loss.”
H. H. Richardson
I’ve been telling myself and my writing students the same thing for a long time now. As creative artists, all the shitty stuff that happens to us has value. It is the gold we mine for our stories. And a wonderful way to begin to be grateful for the traumas in our life.
EVERYTHING IS MATERIAL!
Every experience is be relished. Treasured even. No matter how painful. Because everything we endure increases our depth of understanding of the human experience and that is what writers need, more than any fancy turn of phrase, or fast-paced plot. Because we write to make sense of what it is to live in the world, of what is is to live a human life.
The more we live, in all the pain and muck and glory, the better our writing will be.
Thank you, dear Ettie, for your words and for your wisdom.
Memory books are a great way to write your way through grief and to help yourself and others to heal. This year I’ve already done one for my father who died forty years ago, and am presently working on another for an uncle who only recently passed away.
The first memory book I ever created was for my son Teddy who died a few days after birth in 2006. My dear friend Helena had sent a handmade blanket for my new baby but we never got to use it for that purpose. Instead, I covered a big scrap book with the material and set about filling every page inside with stories, photos and cards.
All these scraps of memory added together, create something solid to hang on to, to make his coming and going more than just a hazy dream. With the book we always have something concrete to prove his existence. Writing or the urge to write is often driven by this impetus — to make a permanent mark for those who leave before us.
I wrote the story of Teddy’s birth to include, and encouraged my children to write their own stories and draw pictures too. Friends all wrote in the book at his funeral and afterwards I glued their cards in to remind us of the love that surrounded us at that terrible time.
Every year on his birthday we display the book and light candles, and for many years we made cards or wrote stories or drew pictures to add to the book. It’s pages are filled now, fourteen years have passed, but we still remember him and the book is there to show us just how much love was in his presence.
Early this year, as the fortieth anniversary of my father’s death approached, I was overwhelmed by an inner prompting to make a mark for him too. I wanted to create a book of memories to share with my youngest sister who was only four when he died and for my children and my siblings’ children, so they have an idea of the man who was their grandfather, even though they never got to meet him.
I started by writing my own. I was fourteen when he died so I had more memories than my younger siblings. I then asked my brother and sisters for their stories, and my father’s siblings and his best friend as well. Some stories came from interviews I did, either on the phone or in person, which I then transcribed and made into stories. Then I set about collecting photos to add.
The result is a marvellous tapestry of stories and images that create a multi-dimensional portrait of a wonderful, creative man. Each story adds its own special colour to that portrait, different reflections of the same person, a kaleidoscope of love.
At the moment I’m working on a similar collection of stories and images for my Uncle Danny who only died recently. Some people are afraid of telling their stories or don’t know where to start. I found that once others started contributing and these stories were shared, the others gained confidence and eventually were able to write their own pieces – if only to contradict what they saw as factual errors in other stories! 🙂
Every experience is subjective, we all see things differently through our own lens of perception, coloured by our own lives. This is the best thing about collections like this, the differences in perceptions of the person we are commemorating.
Writing your own memories, especially if you focus on the good times, the moments of joy you shared, is a powerful healing tool. To add those memories to the memories of others creates a community of shared love and loss which is precious. I learnt from my father’s siblings that my father had a naughty side, but mainly I learnt that we all found him quite wonderful. That he was, in fact, the very special person I’d always believed him to be.
If you have lost someone you loved, either recently or decades ago, I highly recommend creating a memory book to help record your memories for future generations. But, even more importantly than that, is the healing that will come for your own heart in the act of creation.