We’re pleased to welcome Mollie Joy Rushmeyer as a guest blogger for us today. She’s sharing about the role of memory and emotion in our writing, and we can’t wait to share her insight with you.
Thanks for having me!
Let me tell you, the psychology geek in me is super excited about this topic!
C.S. Lewis’s words conjure the final chapter from a childhood favorite. A scene that always sends a prickle up my arms and a tear to my eye. And just as I’m sure the characters live on in perpetuity after I turn the last page, so too does my warm nostalgic feeling when I recall this story, time and again.
According to The Memory Experience: A Journey of Self Discovery, “Our emotions and our memories are inexorably linked. On one level, emotional memory simply refers to the notion that very emotional events are often memorable… Furthermore, we’re more likely to remember any image if we ourselves are in a state of heightened emotion.”
While the dictionary definition of nostalgia is, “A wistful desire to return in thought or in fact to a former time in one’s life, to one’s home or homeland, or to one’s family and friends; a sentimental yearning for the happiness of a former place or time.”
What does this have to do with our writing?
Imagine for a moment… You’re curled up in your favorite reading spot. A warm drink within arm’s reach, your toes covered with a soft throw blanket, and your favorite book is splayed across your lap.
Maybe in your favorite story, the hero finally gets the girl. Or the mystery that had you reading well into the night to find out who-dunnit, is finally solved. Perhaps the epic showdown between good versus evil is won.
Beautiful, isn’t it?
The ache in the center of the chest as we recall the characters we love, who are so real and dear to us. The stories become part of our memories, as real as the emotions they brought out in us. They create a sense of nostalgia as we remember them, don’t they? That’s why we keep coming back, time and again. Like visiting an old friend.
C.S. Lewis had it right, our hearts sing— “I have come home at last!… I belong here” —as we live and breathe the stories once more.
That’s why I first fell in love with books and then writing. I still can’t think of anything more wonderful than bringing to life something wrought from words, and participating in creating along with my Creator through writing.
So, how do we as writers create a memorable story, and more than that, hopefully, write someone’s favorite?
There’s no cookie-cutter answer. Let’s face it, despite our best efforts and intentions, peoples’ tastes in books are as varied as the people themselves. And *squirm* our beloved stories may not be everyone’s cup of tea.
But… there are still things we can do to tap into the psyche of nostalgia and emotional memory to have a greater impact on readers.
1. Use the five senses.
This is an oldie, but goodie. Think about the most impactful memories you have, the ones burned into the recesses of your brain. Because of the emotional intensity, you probably can see it in your mind’s eye like a movie. Maybe you can hear the voices of those around you. You may recall the taste, smell, and touch of your surroundings.
In the same way, when someone reads a story with a mix of high emotion along with sensory details, the words are more likely to have a similar impact as real-life memories.
2. Write from your own sense of nostalgia and emotional memory.
Have you ever heard the quote by Robert Frost, “No tears in the writer, no tears in the reader”?
In the first draft especially, write like no one’s ever going to read it. Let your heart out of its ribcage to lay bare and raw upon the page. It’s not always comfortable to go to the deepest places of our own souls, our emotions, in order to take the reader along with us. But it will pay off.
And while we know as writers, putting our characters through emotional stress keeps readers on their toes and turning pages, from a scientific standpoint, happy and pleasurable circumstances also leave a lasting impression. In fact, some studies have shown that positive memories stay with us longer and are preserved in greater sensory detail in our brains. So, sprinkling in some good stuff for your heroes and heroines (you know before you rip it away again), is a good thing.
3. Create characters in whom the reader can see a piece of themselves and feel for their plight.
When we see ourselves in the characters we love, we see the roses among the thorns. All their good despite their bad. And we LOVE them for it. We ache for their aches. We laugh with their joys. We cry for all their pain. Their stories become our stories. Readers want to see imperfect characters, real people, but in all their weakness, a person worth saving, worth remembering.
If you’re a Christian writer, don’t make a squeaky-clean, ‘never sinned a day in his life’ hero. Make your protagonist someone who struggles, like we all do, with the darkness of sin in his life and God’s redeeming whisper in his heart. Make them genuine, give them a purpose, a journey/quest the reader will root for, and then give them a road filled with pain, sweetness, and tons of almosts and not-yets.
4. Touch on a wide variety of emotions.
In a dark Gothic mystery, there won’t be a bunch of lighthearted laughter going on, nor should there be. For each genre, there’s a ‘mood’ intentionally set. However, that doesn’t mean a writer can’t include the spectrum of emotions in his or her writing. Just remain mindful of the overall mood you’re trying to achieve.
The broad range of emotion makes a well-rounded impression on the psyche of the reader, helping to further cement the story into their memory. Don’t we all love a movie or book that runs the gambit from laughter to crying and back again, bringing us on an emotional roller-coaster? It makes the last scene or page that much more bittersweet when it’s done.
As Thanksgiving and Christmas approach, many people become nostalgic over traditions, spending time with family, reminiscing about holidays past. Joy with sadness fraying the edges—usually because we want to go back and live them all over again. That’s the sweet-spot, my friend, in which we want our stories to live. To breathe on, immemorial, in the minds and hearts of our beloved reader.
Come further up, come further in… bring on the stories with heart and emotion, writers. Blessings and prayers for you all as you write what the Lord has laid on your hearts.
If you’d like to read further on the topic of emotions and memory, here’s a few interesting articles I used for reference:
A born and bred Midwesterner, Mollie Rushmeyer makes her home in central Minnesota with her husband and two spunky, beautiful daughters. From a young age, she loved putting words to page and dreamed of becoming an author. As an inspirational contemporary romance and women’s fiction writer, she loves to bring stories of hope to messy, prodigal gals just like her. She’s an active member of the national and local chapter of ACFW. And in her “spare” time she lives out her Lois Lane fantasies as a local print journalist, writes encouraging content for Crosswalk and iBelieve, is an outdoors enthusiast, loves to sing and read, and enjoys full-time employment as a monkey-catcher… ahem, mommy.
Thanks so much for diving deep into this topic, Mollie! We appreciate your advice.