On Memory: Group Writing Exercise

Non-fiction is all about memory and interpretation. Memory is not always reliable, but non-fiction is all about truth. How do you find a balance?

Step One: Everyone in the room closes their eyes. Go around the room asking each student about the room. What color is the carpet and the walls? What books are on the shelf and what words are written on the board?

The teacher keeps a running list on the board as the students navigate the room.

Ex: The desk is in the front right hand of the room. The door has four window panes. The clock is on the back wall and there are twelve desks.

They may not be right, and that’s okay! Better even. Some students will disagree with one another and some students will remember better than others.

Once they’ve exhausted their options, have them open their eyes. Go over the list. What was right and what was wrong.

Lesson: You’re not going to remember every little detail. Keep the ones you do, the ones you’re sure about. The red carpet may be important because you can’t see the stain from the time Bobby Malone had a bloody nose. That may be an important moment for your story.

It also shows that everyone’s memory is different–often unreliable. But that’s okay. It’s important to note which details you remember correctly and think why you got them right. You know the clock is on the back wall because you have to turn around to look at it. You know there are twelve desks because you’re aways separated into three groups of four.

Step Two: Have each student take out a piece of paper and describe their childhood bedroom.

Make a list of everything you can remember. Colors of the walls and sheets. Where everything was. What colors were in your closet. Which floorboards were loose and how many windows there were.

Now that they have a list, have them choose a moment in time–when their room looked that way. Describe something that happened in our out of the room and weave in details of the room.

Ex: I was twelve when Maid in Manhattan came out and I had a date. He was a few inches shorter than me. My friends always advised me to steer clear of high heels, like I was going to wear them anyway. It seemed like a triumphant moment, to hang out alone with a boy for the first time, even if it was in a movie theater full of people. I both hoped and feared that he would hold my hand.

It was winter, so I settled on a pair of jeans and a bright pink sweater. Something to keep me warm, even though I was already sweating through my camisole. I sat in my bedroom, looking out the window facing the road, waiting for the headlights of his mom’s minivan. He was picking me up in style.

I saw them coming a mile away. I ran downstairs, and said goodbye to my mom. She told me to have fun. I said thank you.

“Hey, mom?” I asked.

She looked up from her book.

“Can I get a new comforter?”

“What’s wrong with the one you have now?”

“It has butterflies on it,” I said and walked out the door. Butterflies are for children.

Lesson: After making a list of details, choose a few to carry your story. Of course, you won’t need all of them. Just a mention, or a clip to show the readers who you were at that time. The room is important because of who you were at the time.

You need to sort through a lot of weeds to find a flower.

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