Memory Chain (Writing Exercise)

This semester I clawed and begged my way into a workshop with an organization called the New York City Writing Project. This organization focuses on how to teach writing to middle/high school students through a teacher-to-teacher dialogue and exploration of practices  and under the strong belief that in order to teach writing you need to write. Even though I am no longer teaching high school, I argued that these skills are very relevant in teaching community college in order to sqeeze myself in. It worked, and I’m so thankful.

Because I hadn’t been writing. Not on my old blog, not academically… I had a sort of writing paralysis and it made me depressed because I *like* writing, either here, academically, or in general. I walked into night one of the workshop eager to jump-start my writing again. I needed to, for both personal and professional reasons.

The first activity they did this weekend was called the Memory Chain Writing Exercise. It’s a warm up activity to get the students’ brains thinking in order to generate ideas for writing. This is how it works:  the instructor gives out a word and each student writes their own chain of  memories that emerge from that word. It could be used in any class/any subject to start moving the students moving towards the writing process. In a science class you could use a word like “periodic table of the elements” (well, that’s five words, but you know) and see what memories emerge. The goal is to give the students time to let memories form from the word and then to let their stream of consciousness run with it. It’s NOT a word association exercise (as in I say “report card” and you say “grades”), but and idea generating exercise. This is how mine went:

The word given by the instructor was “playground:”

I have a lot of playground memories given that I have a 4 and 2 year old and live in a large city where playgrounds rule, so my brain sought out one memory that stood out. One day this summer I took Nico and Alexandra to the Vanderbilt Playground (our favorite). It was super hot, so they wore their bathing suits to play in the sprinkler/water areas. I watched them run around, and then I saw her–Alexandra–and her leggy, long, beautiful self. She had on a Hello Kitty bathing suit, regular bottoms and a tshirt top, but she was so stunning. She had a golden tan, her quad muscles had light definition, her little butt was so cute, her long limbs climbed and hung and wiggled as she swung from a piece of playground equipment, and a look of joy just shone from her face. And in this moment I saw her as 4 year old girl, then a tween, then a teen, then a woman…It was a moment that transcended the actual moment and her beauty and potential just floored me.

Then I remembered the Creative Playground in Sterling, Virginia where I grew up, and the summer before middle school when I “went with” Steven Patrick for about three weeks. We would meet at the Creative Playground, which was a maze-like structure of wood, and hold hands while sitting secretly enclosed in one of the alcoves of the maze. That was it. Our hands would sweat in the summer heat, but it didn’t matter. We just held hands and talked and giggled as long as we could until we were forced out of hiding by friends, siblings, or an intense game of tag. He was a cute kid with freckles and dark hair. Later on, maybe even only a month later, the social hierarchies of middle school would divide us–him being cool and only dating popular girls and me being pretty mediocre and not worthy of “going with,” but our summer hand-holding ended before then. But I remember it was sweet and exciting, like my world was changing but I wasn’t sure quite how.

Then I thought of Steven Patrick’s dad, whom I never met. He died sometime during our youth–was it middle school?–and I remember it being the tragic sad background story that perhaps made Steven’s freckles a little cuter and him more appealing. But I don’t know why his dad died, or how, or when, or how Steven and his family dealt with such an enormous loss when the kids were so young. As an adult and a parent now, I feel for the kid Steven was back then, and his mom, and his siblings (brother and sister? can’t remember for sure). And I remember how it was never discussed, except in hushed gossip in the halls of school, and I wonder how Steven dealt with all that when he was so, so young.

And then I think of my dad, and how awkward it was losing him when I was 22–an age when we were these pseudo adults. We were just out of college but still so naive as how to navigate many of life’s difficult experiences. Friends and peers didn’t do much better for me at 22 than we did for Steven in middle school. Death of a parent was still too weird to talk about at that age.

And then I thought about my dad, who’s been gone now for 16 years this spring. And how my real memories of him are fading and how the only memories remaining strong are those backed my photographs. Even the traumatic memories, like seeing him in the hospital having just died, have gained a haze to them–a dreamlike quality that almost calls to question, “Was that actually real, or was that some movie I saw?” I mean, of course I know it was real, but it’s losing clarity around the edges, seeming cinematic and very far away.

We had to turn to a partner and share our memory chain, and would you believe that when I started talking about my dad, I cried. Yep, right there in the stupid first night of the writing workshop. Not a sobbing, ugly cry, but my eyes watered and my poor sweet partner got all choked up by my tears and then I made her cry. God….Luckily she was the only person in our 20+ group to witness this (I certainly didn’t want to get labeled as the freak who cried on the first night of class), but my last note on the page was:

Shit! How’d this get so heavy?

And I came away from this writing exercise with two lingering ideas:

1. You never get over a loss like losing a parent or a loved one. The day-to-day gets easier, holidays get easier, and life goes on, but then, out of the blue, it hits you hard. Like it did for me that night. You’re simply never done grieving. Talk with students about this, Lori–note to self. I can’t tell you how many students I have taught who have lost parents, but the number always seemed astronomical. When I could tell them that I had lost my dad, it did allow me to bond with some kids. I can talk about how I miss him with them. They will get it.

2. When teaching writing, I think we need to be aware of these emotional moments for students, too. Writing can be deeply personal and as teachers of writing (and I believe ALL subject teachers are teachers of writing, not just English teachers) we need to understand that writing can make a student mad, sad, nostalgic–a whole range of emotions. I am not sure if you can devise up with a universal strategy to deal with these situations when they arise, but an awareness that writing might provoke something unexpected is a good place to start.


2 thoughts on “Memory Chain (Writing Exercise)

  1. Tina,
    How funny you should comment today. I’m in Tulsa, Oklahoma and went on a tour of Black Wall Street (destroyed in 1921) and kept thinking, “Tina would love this!” and I bought you a book. No lie. We are still connected–in head and heart–even thought we’re no longer coworkers. Will visit Cobble to give you the book soon. xo. Lori

  2. Your blog reminds me of all the conversations we had, the one’s we still do when i read your stuff., and all the one’s I want to have with you. This is why i miss you.

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