One reason people write is to leave a written record of something, to help make sure that idea or event is not forgotten. Long before computers started using electronic codes to archive information on data media, people wanted to have some sort of “memory” external to individual humans.
As far back as the cave dwellers of Lascaux and the indigenous peoples of the American Southwest and central Australia, people started carving images representing important events or ideas into rock and applying paint to protected surfaces. Once written languages developed, the human ability to archive important stories grew much more detailed and exact.
But writing also comes from the writer’s memory as well as creating a product that will continue to be remembered. Writers are told, “Write what you know,” and that means drawing on memory.
Looking back on my own experience of writing, I remember a lot of resistance to “writing,” by which I meant assignments for school. Much of that came from the requirement that we hand in a “clean copy.” I had sketchy-at-best handwriting skills and creating a neat document felt like torture. And in pre-personal-computer days, typing was just as bad. A typing mistake meant retyping the whole page.
But I remember always loving poetry. Reading it and writing it. Loved it so much that I never thought of poetry as “writing” until I took a poetry-writing course in college.
What made poetry so different for me? First and foremost, poetry was something I did for me always and only rarely for handing in. Even when I did have a poetry-writing school assignment, my poetry tended towards brevity and thus posed less hardship to copy neatly. And possibly I enjoyed poetry-writing assignments more because I had much more leeway as to subject—and sometimes even form—than when writing an essay or research paper.
Poetry, a very intense use of language, works quite well to encapsulate very specific memories. Reading a poem I wrote in 1984 brings me vivid memories of discovering the flower that inspired it:
For years the dead leaves gathered here
– fallen, blown, tangled in brush –
Pandora’s trove lay hidden beneath
(Bugs, worms, mildew and damp after rain;
dead, dusty clay when dry).
Who could have guessed at you?
Lone, frail, speckled leaf,
pale small flower to come.
Do my memories spark any echoes in your own?