As part of our Screen players course in creative writing, students watched the Video Stories that came out of the Reminiscence Therapy Sessions we ran with elderly residents of Lewes care homes. They were fascinated by the anecdotes and oral histories that the interviewees provided, and we explored how memories can inspire new stories and material for creating both visual, written and performance work. We looked at personal experience and life writing as a way into creating text, drawing particularly on Virginia Woolf's autobiographical collection of writings, 'A Sketch of the Past.'
Very early memories are often intense, lucid and yet weirdly disconnected from a larger narrative or chronology. Woolf described these kinds of free floating, informative memories as 'Moments in time' - using this as a theme and with writing exercises to unearth memories and scenes from the past, students produced their own pieces of prose. One student, Maria became aware after drafting the following piece, that all of her first memories related to journey's, small independent journeys from one point to another, that to a small child, seemed huge and fraught with danger. It told her certain things about her character: her sense of adventure and her courage - traits that were there even when she was a toddler! This piece Maria beautifully captures the scale and acute emotions of early childhood.
On My First Memory - 'Moments of Being' by Maria Antonia Reis Teixeira da Costa
I have told my family this story before, and I think only my mother really believes me, because of the amount of detail I can remember. But I do not hold it against the rest, as sometimes we imagine a memory into being. We can be so sure that something really did happen this way, or that, only then to realise that we made up the whole thing. It was actually reconstructed using the photographs, and stories we were told from our childhood. But there are no photographs from the perspective of inside my crib, from this particular side of the room. And along with the memory there is that deep certainty that it is real.
I am in my crib, trying to fall asleep, back to sleep, when I notice across from me, right by the door, on the chest, the wooden chest with all of the dress-up clothes, on the pink ballerina skirt that is always sticking out, a spider. A massive spider. And I’m terrified. All I can think about is that I need to get to my parents’ room, immediately, just down the hall, then I’ll be safe. Only then will the presence of the spider in this world, in my room, on my pink ballerina skirt, only then will it not matter. I’ll be safe. But I know I'm not allowed to get out of my crib. I’m supposed to stay put, and sleep.
Somehow, this is ingrained in me, even though I don’t remember any time of ever being told this. But eventually, fear of the spider outweighs all else, even the stern authority of my parents. I’m sitting up and I can feel the bars of the crib. I’m holding onto them, my hands wrapped around them, and there’s a sort of door mechanism, an opening, that lets me crawl in or out. The bars are still quite vivid in my mind, their smell, the roughness of their surface. How I would often stick my head in between them, or wake up pressed up against them, uncomfortable. And how they tasted as well, that woodsy taste, and the feel of my teeth closing around them. I remember I liked the feeling.
So I go through the door, closer to the danger, the spider, than before. Its dark angled body, resting on the baby pink background stares at me, haunts me as I get closer. I try not to look at it, try to forget that its there so that it can’t get me. It will all be worth it, because I’m almost there, almost at my parents’ room, almost safe. The memory stops there.
I have another memory, almost a collection of memories, which I always associate with this time. I’m crawling down the hall, on the carpet, with the light, a soft, orange, yellow glow coming from my parents’ room. I crawl till I’m at the foot of the bed, the massive bed that I can’t fall out of, where I can roll and roll, on and on. I reach up under the bar of the bed frame, squeeze through the mattress and frame. The feel of that big metal golden bar, unyielding, stays with me, as I eventually associate a sense of panic with it. For when I go through, a moment of being stuck between frame and mattress occurs. As I get older, and I continue to grow, my head gets bigger, and the opening just isn’t big enough. But I stubbornly insist on taking this route, despite the momentary panic I have to deal with. Once free, I go under the covers, right to the top, and settle between my parents, content.
My mother later told me, that they only realised I had crawled through when they woke up the next morning, and there they would find me, fast asleep, between them. And so goes my first memory, the foundation upon which the rest are built – or so suggests Virginia Woolf in her ‘A Sketch of the Past.’
My third memory is from when we were moving out of my childhood home. Everything is gone, all of the carpets. And the house is empty, so there is no one to play with, and I’m sad. I remember this feeling of sadness quite distinctly. My mother is still here, but she's always on the phone and I know I shouldn’t disturb her. So I’m sitting on the dark wooden floor where I think there used to be a carpet because it just looks so bare to me. I’m under the dining table, in the fancy dining room. Or maybe the table is already gone. My mother comes along, there’s a package for me. It’s a doll, a beautiful doll by the name of Clarissa, with golden brown, curly hair, and she smells like strawberries: this was my favourite thing about her. She’s wearing a strawberry themed outfit too, red strawberry pants, and a white blouse, and now I have something to play with. Here, the memory ends.
In the fourth memory, we are in the new temporary apartment, and I don’t like it. Not one bit, except for the fact that my sisters and I are all sharing one room and the floor is covered in mattresses. I’m walking down the stairs and its late, I shouldn’t be up. No else is up, and everything is beige downstairs, the walls and the carpet and everything, beige and grey, and it feels hard and cold, unwelcome. The light is harsh and casts no shadows and I miss the warm glow. And everything is quiet and faceless. The dining table here is made out of glass, very cold, and I don't like it. (Even now, as an adult, when I go by the building I have a deep sense of dislike for the place: never shall I return.)
On the table, there are some glass and metal salt and pepper shakers, cold to the touch, intriguing. I know I’m not allowed to but I take the pepper shaker, to see what it’s for. Suddenly a whoosh of grey dust fills my nose, and it burns, and the smell is terrible. And, because of the horror of that memory, for the longest time, I hated pepper.
Testimonial from Maria about the Screenplayers Set Up & Go writing course:
"This course has brought me a lot of joy. It has given me the confidence to write, gifting me a passion I thought I couldn’t have. For although I have always been a passionate reader, I never thought I would ever be able to author a creative piece, that I would ever be able to use this skill that I admired so greatly in others. But with Tara’s kind and informative guidance, I realised that the first and most important thing you need to do is just start writing: anything, everything, whatever comes to mind, get it all out.
Tara also showed me how to use different styles and techniques. Before, I was too intimidated to even contemplate trying them out, to even dare to try something different, but Tara proved that its actually engaging and fun. For example, in one session we cut out different words and phrases from magazines, and using the result, I was able to craft a story. Then we cut up the story itself, to show how rearranging a plot can change the whole tone, showing that there is no strict form of how to write a story.
In another session we worked on reminiscence work, following the example Tara brought from Virginia Woolf. The process was actually immeasurably therapeutic. Through it came the realisation that all of my first memories are of being on my own, going on a journey. Additionally, each memory served as a learning experience. Such as how if I put my mind to it, I can triumph over a fear, or a golden bar. Or how pepper should be kept as far away as possible from the olfactory senses.
Seeing the reminiscence work with individuals in senior homes also brought me great joy, as my grandmother came to mind. It would have been lovely to have been able to have done the same with her. So often, we forget about the store of knowledge we could discover from our elders, the joy the simple act of listening can bring, to both the storyteller and to those listening."
Reminiscence forms an intrinsic part of the Screenplayers project, and we will be exploring the life stories and memories of older people in our local community as well as supporting younger people to draw on those real life stories to create their own screen-plays.
As a writer I have been involved in a number of community arts and theatre projects where the gathering of stories from specific groups and individuals within the community is a crucial part of the R & D process.
Beginner writers are often advised to use what they know, to mine their own experiences as material for creating believable and unique fiction. The characters, settings, and details we re-discover by exploring the memories and events of our own lives add authenticity and texture to a created narrative, whatever art practice it might inform. By the same token, talking to other people about their life stories and memories can yield fascinating and valuable insights, not least for oral historians and researchers but also for artists and storytellers.
Slices of life are revealed in compelling ways that the writer could not have invented or imagined, and rich and evocative details emerge if you have the time and inclination to really listen.
I have worked with old and young people, and have heard the stories of people who have experienced marginalisation or stigma, such as people with mental health issues, teenage single mums and women with HIV. As a consequence, my perceptions have been altered and my prejudices dissolved. One of the many positive by-products of giving a voice to people who might be excluded or who experience life on the fringes of society is that stereotypes are challenged.
My own stereotypes were confronted when I was employed as a writer for a site-specific theatre piece about boxing called Gloves On!. As part of the research we interviewed dozens of boxers, amateur and professional, male and female. We recorded the anecdotes of retired and working boxers. They described the courage, dedication, and skill of their craft, as well as the psychological and emotional journey they go on before, during and after a fight. The jargon many of the boxers used to describe a fight and the passionate way in which they articulated their experiences was surprisingly erudite and poetic. First hand accounts like these provide the specialist, insider terms and phrases that are often unfamiliar and captivating. Not only do concrete details emerge, but also the vernacular and idiosyncrasies of dialogue and accent. We used this much of this text to inform and build the scenes and to craft the script.
Recorded memories do not have to be confined solely to oral or written language. The mind stores memories across the spectrum of senses in an index of varied sensations and thoughts.
Asking interviewees about the sounds, smells or physical sensations associated with a particular memory can tap into a wealth of wonderful, multi-layered material. For example, in a recent project I was involved in called Machine Women (by director Luan Taylor), the lives of women who worked in factories were explored. As part of the R & D we visited industrial areas, and recorded the memories of women, many of them elderly, who had personal experience of factory work. Although the women had gaps in their memories, when asked, they were all able to show us exactly what they used to do with their hands at work. The repetitive movements and patterns, often performed for eight or ten hours a day for years and years had been stored in their body memory. We asked the women to show us and we filmed the movements and the edited footage was used as part of a short art film.
As a result of this kind of oral history work, coupled with some historical research, we were able to build a really clear, evocative and sometimes unsettling picture of what it was like for women doing this kind of tedious hard labour for years on end for little pay. But we also discovered that these women were tough and stoical in way that is rare nowadays; their attitude reflected the socio-political climate of their generation. The women talked about the value of friendship and camaraderie, the singing to drive away boredom, and the silent coded communication when talking was not allowed. They described the sounds and smells of the factory floor, the clothes they wore and the names and purposes of specialist trade equipment. All of this was priceless information for creating text, film, sound, and imagery.
In my experience getting people to relax, trust and open up about their past experiences requires a warm, patient, supporting manner, and a genuine interest in people’s stories. As an interviewer it’s always really important to tread lightly and not to probe into areas where you are not welcome. Always respect that person’s values, boundaries and privacy. Mostly, people get a lot from telling their stories to a attentive listener. It’s affirming and it helps people feel their unique perspective is special and valuable.
It’s not just the interviewer who gains insight, often the interviewee has realisations and makes new connections when they are given the opportunity to revisit their past in this way.
Every individual is distinct and complex and being involved in reminiscence and oral history is such an exciting journey full of unexpected treasures. These are events lived from the inside out, the ordinary person’s living testimony to what it means to be human within a given society, group and period of time.
I found a really thoughtful summary of what reminiscence therapy is all about on the www.seniorsnetwork.co.uk, written by Doris M Daly RGN. Here it is:
"Without a memory there is no person, there is no selfhood.
A person exists from having lived through the past"
The article continues to list the important features of reminiscence therapy:
"Memory is a remarkable gift and memories are very precious"
"We all carry them on life's journey"
"Everything we have ever experienced is etched somewhere in our minds"
For most people the idea of becoming aged is something to be held in dread. Many have little or no communication with the elderly, apart from helping an `old lady' on or oft the bus. But we older people are all around, and many of us have a wealth of knowledge and experiences to share, to those who care to listen.
Please find more on the seniors network here