When I taught a memoir workshop by the Bay of Fundy in Nova Scotia, I was struck by the sight of the vast expanse of sea floor, left exposed by the fast-retreating tide.

In some places you see deep wet clay, already sculpted by the play of water. 

In other places the tide leaves behind dry sand, studded with treasures. 

Maybe the reason I’m so fascinated by the exposed sea floor is because it seems like such a perfect metaphor for memory. Usually our deep memories are covered up by the great volume of lived experience, and we travel back in time like deep-sea divers, peering into the vast kelp forests of the past by the light of our puny headlamps. 

But sometimes a memory will surface, perhaps triggered by something in the present, and it’s as if the sea of time has parted, leaving the past exposed for our exploration. 

When these moments come, you can walk through the veil of time into the past, and greet the people and places that live on in your memory. You can pick up the treasures left strewn in the sand, sink your hands into the primal clay of memory and begin to shape something new.

Memoir uses the primal mud of memory as its raw material; the art and craft of memoir is all in the telling. Part of the alchemy of purposeful memoir is in transforming the rough jewels of memory into polished gems of stories and scenes that bring the past alive again. 

I’m also experimenting with another, more daring aspect of alchemy: picking up the fossilized stone of a memory, turning it over and imagining it from another perspective. What if this moment in time, frozen in my memory, had happened differently? How might my life have been changed? How can my understanding of what was be enriched by restless waters of what might have been?

For anyone thinking about writing autobiographical fiction, this is a potent generative exercise. But even for those who plan to stay in the realm of truth, it can be liberating and thought-provoking to allow yourself to daydream about alternatives. 

Considering what might have been leads us to a deeper understanding of key choices we made in our lives, those proverbial forks in the road that led us, one day at a time, to the present moment of writing.

In my alchemy workshops, we wander like beachcombers on a bright windy day, seeking the shells and stones of our experience in a free-spirited, light-hearted way, focusing on the positive qualities and emotions we have sought, with varied success, to manifest in our lives. 

This is not to deny the power and impact of our negative experiences. Each Alchemy session invites a consideration of those too. 

But just as we head out to the beach in the morning basking in the wind and sun and alive to the possibility of finding treasure, we’ll head into the exploration of our past with a buoyant spirit, seeking the memories that have the most to teach us—and others. 

I hope you’ll join me on this magical journey! For now, from the primal mud, I send you a cheerful Namaste.

Photo by Carmel Mikol. Wolfville, Nova Scotia.

More from the Writing Life Blog…