Lighting Up Your Storytelling With Flashbulb Memories

Whether we are revealing ourselves through memoir or creating an alien world in a novel, our experiences drive our storytelling. Writers can amplify the brightness of so-called “flashbulb memories” to add more vigor to the stories they tell. That was one takeaway for me from Saturday’s Conversations and Connections writer’s conference in Washington, D.C., sponsored by Barrelhouse and hosted by Johns Hopkins University.

A “flashbulb memory,” author, teacher and literary journal editor Joanne Cavanaugh Simpson told a tired but engaged audience late in the day, is an emotional event that is locked down in our memory. It’s remembering where we were and what we were doing on 9/11, for example. We relive the memories, in our minds and in our telling of them to others. But everyone has memories unique to them, often linked to a personal trauma.

Isaac Baker‘s forthcoming novel Broken Bones was inspired by a flashbulb memory that proved to be the first to return to him after awakening in a hospital in 2008 not knowing who he was. The memory was that 1) he was married, and 2) his wife was cheating on him, and 3) she had recently left him. Exploring this memory, he realized he was hospitalized because the trauma had led him to stop eating.

My honeymoon in Greece produced some flashbulb memories. I likely would have forgotten this lazy dog I "spotted" in Santorini, however, had I not snapped his picture. I include him here because he looks like how I felt at the end of the conference.

From Baker’s description of Broken Bones, it sounds like his novel borrows heavily from real life. But panelists made clear that the flashbulb memory should be considered a trigger point from which a narrative could be built. It is the narrative that matters; a traumatic memory may be unique to us, but we all suffer trauma. The key is to find a way to build an original story from that trauma.

Josip Novakovich watched his father die at the age of eleven.  He relived that flashbulb memory every year on his father’s death day, convinced that at midnight he too would die. The death of a father is not unique to Novakovich, but he said that vivid and life-shaping moment has helped him launch numerous writing projects, including stories, essays, and even poetry.

We all remember things differently. Dario DiBattista knows this well. An Iraq War veteran, he has written extensively about his experiences since returning to the U.S. and earning an MA in Creative Writing. What he has found, however, is that two soldiers in the same battle can have highly divergent perspectives on what transpired, with one convinced the firefight lasted minutes and another equally adamant it lasted hours.

If crafting a memoir, the writer must tell the story as it is true to her, even if others will have a different perspective, Simpson said. This is something Simpson has given a lot of thought to, as she recently launched a new literary journal, Three Quarter Review, featuring essays that are “at least 75% true.”

But the notion of varied perspectives on the same incident can also be useful in fiction. Panelists discussed how a writer could take one incident from his life and imagine how various characters would view that same incident. That process could trigger a narrative for a short story, or even a  novel.

Have you ever used a flashbulb memory to craft a story? What steps did you take to go beyond the memory itself and build a narrative, to tell a story instead of just a memory?

About Patrick Ross

I'm the author of Committed: A Memoir of the Artist's Road.

23 Responses to “Lighting Up Your Storytelling With Flashbulb Memories”

  1. Good read. Thought provoking too.

  2. I have to say I loved reading this. Very interesting perspective on inspirational writing. I’ve heard the term flashbulb memory in reference to writing before but I’ve never had it fully explained nor did I really bother investigating the phrase. This has deeply intrigued me, and I guess I have used a flashbulb memory of my own in writing my story “Blue Fabric” (found here: http://thethickersense.wordpress.com/2012/04/16/blue-fabric-part-1-short-story/ if you’re interested). This story was created out of inspiration by a trauma in my own life, though completely different, and yet here I have somehow created something original out of it. Hm, not that I’m any Isaac Baker though. Haha.
    Thank you for sharing – this has been very useful!

  3. The picture of the dog makes me giggle.

    To my knowledge, I’m yet to use a flashlight memory in my story. Thinking about it, I’m planning to bring out more backstory in the second book of my trilogy, but I might try to break some of the portions into fragments, so I can weave them into the narrative without distancing the readers too much.

    • Glad you liked the photo!

      I like that you said “to my knowledge,” because I found myself wondering if fiction writers might be creating scenes or plots driven by a memory that is very much alive in the subconscious but not something the conscious mind is really reflecting upon. The speakers didn’t address that issue, but I’d love to learn more about it.

      Kudos for imagining ways you could incorporate things into your trilogy.

  4. This is a very thoughtful post! I like the term “flashbulb memory” much more than “flashback” or some other such phrase.

    I have used flashbulb memories in my work before, and I agree that it’s imperative to make them essential to the story. A lot of beginning writers will use them instead to capture a moment in time or show characterization, but I think that train of thought make it easy to write expendable flashbulb memories. So great advice; thanks for sharing!

    • Welcome back, Annie!

      Good point about the use of them solely for capturing a moment or characterization (the speakers didn’t mention that use, but yes, it is used), but clearly there is so much more that could be done with them.

  5. I had about 100 pages of a novel written and nowhere else to go with it. I then put it down for almost 15 years, and picked it up after a “flashbulb moment” — when my recently deceased grandmother’s rosewood armoire arrived at my home. Within 1 year, I had completed the novel.

  6. Great piece, Patrick. Several guest blog posts I’ve written have come from flashbulb moments from my childhood (as a debut author, I’m often asked when I decided I wanted to be a writer, and that has dug up a lot of buried memories).

    I also like the point you make about how a story or event can be different depending on who is doing the remembering or the telling. A novel I read last year does an amazing job of alternating between three different characters’ points of view throughout the book, in some cases repeating the same scene two or three times. It was such an engaging read. Pictures of You by Caroline Leavitt.

    • Hi Jessica! You know, I’ve seen you use that technique in blog posts. You do it well.

      The multiple viewpoint topic is a bit of an obsession with me right now as someone attempting to write a memoir. There are a good forty to fifty people who make appearances who will have their own memories of those book moments, and I worry over how they’ll view my truth as relative to their truth.

      I haven’t read it (yet) but I attended a lecture on it — A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan. She moves through time, revisiting scenes and timelines from multiple characters.

  7. Hey Patrick, just started to follow your blog and have found your words helpful and insightful.

    ‘Flashbulb memories’ my life seems full of them (my kids accuse me of inspiration overload) there are certainly enough to keep me practicing writing.

    My FBM’s seem to creep out in the early hours of the morning when everyone else is asleep. I keep a small flashlight and notebook beside my bed, so I can illuminate and capture them on paper without waking the missus.The search for a beautiful sentence is elusive but compelling.

    kind regards
    Jim

    • There’s no such thing as information overload, just not enough time to make use of them as a writer!

      You’re in good company with the notebook and flashlight. I don’t know what he did for illumination, but Henry David Thoreau kept a notebook under his pillow, and said if he couldn’t sleep it was because something needed to be written, so he’d get up and write it.

      I’m so glad you’ve found the blog and find it of value, Jim!

  8. Interesting name for these moments.

    I once came out of a neighborhood rec center and found my car wouldn’t start. When I got back with my then boyfriend we found an old lady lying on the sidewalk. I turned it into a short story that bears little resemblance to the actual event, other than the old lady lying on the sidewalk.

    • Hi Cynthia! I hope you’re recovering well from your health scare.

      That would seem a perfect example. The panelists talked about how, sometimes, it’s a trigger to a story that is quite different.

  9. Interesting post….I’ve never tried it, but I will now🙂

    Thanks hon xx

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