Exercising Memory

I’ve been practising a regular fifteen-minute writing exercise that I thought might be interesting to share. The exercise has become part of my “write fifteen minutes a day no matter what” routine, dropped recently thanks to flu and family stuff but since returned to. The piece began as a kind of travel guide for my boyfriend to read before we went on an excursion to the neighbourhood I grew up in, written to help familiarize him with my stories, and to help me remember tidbits to talk about while we walked around the few blocks of my childhood. From the first paragraph I realized what a great writing exercise a memory trip made.

The enjoyment of sending myself on a nostalgia field trip helps keep me interested in writing, and fuels the exercise. More importantly, though, I’m really challenged to let my brain fill in the senses I miss, to explore hidden corners and places I thought I’d forgotten, and to remember details of place and character. And then write about them.

Here’s an excerpt:

We lived in a red brick post-war house, built one door in from the corner of a busy main street. The house had a modest porch with a roof, one big living room window, two bedroom windows above, and a hint at an attic with a wood-filled frame in the peak above. The front steps made a good place to sit and watch the traffic go by, but was avoided in early summer when the flying ants clustered there to build their nest. Poison generously sprayed from aerosol cans eventually decimated the invasion of the clouds of winged insects, leaving piles of black crusts and a lingering scent of heavy rust.

The well-kept lawn ran right up to the concrete sidewalk, broken only at one corner by a short black-capped pipe. The cap could be unscrewed, revealing a black chasm down which grass was often dropped before the cap replaced. At the top of the lawn, against the house, grew a handful of flowering bushes and pretty perennials. Along the left side of the house ran a warped asphalt drive, ending behind the house at a run-down garage with a beaten wood door. The car, a winged white Ford Falcon, usually sat in front of the garage rather than inside of it.

To the left, a pale grey corner house turned its back to ours. Its front door faced the busy street, inset from the stucco face, and arrived at up a series of steps. Adjacent to its brick house neighbour it offered only a curtained window, partly hidden by a failing lilac tree and boxed in by a black wrought iron balcony that was just wide enough for a child to climb over and squeeze inside of. No windows faced the brick house drive, and at the back a tall wooden fence cut off any sight of the busy street or the grey home’s rear yard. Two sisters lived in the grey stucco two-story home: Miss Duck—a stern spinster with tightly spun white hair and a constant unaccepting gaze, and Mrs. Hughes—a widow with a warm spirit, who filled her house with tiny unframed landscape paintings by her own hand and gave generous lessons to the child next door. Mrs. Hughes wore black glasses with a long chain that hung from the pointed corners and wrapped loosely around the back of her neck. Her short grey hair remained unfettered.

To the right, a pair of married mathematics professors lived, sometimes with a young American guest—I learned later that they took in draft dodgers during the Vietnam War. They welcomed my brother and I next door often, but always sat us down in the back den to work out mathematical puzzles. Piles of papers and hard-cover books stacked the walls of the den. The wooden puzzles challenged the kids to form cubes or squares from smaller pieces, and weren’t always obvious. The mathematicians had long hair and glasses, and the man wore a beard.



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