It's been said that good writing is 90 percent memory.
Ken Brewer, a poet and professor at Utah State University, says he's not sure of the percentages. He simply knows "the whole act of writing for me is reminiscence. Writing itself is past tense. Once you've put it on the page, it's all behind you."At a recent writers conference in Moab, Brewer focused on memory. He led the creative non-fiction workshop there. He had participants spend time recalling personal and family memories to use as material for essays.
Later they shaped their memories into prose.
"Smell, I've found, is a very important memory trigger," says Brewer. "Psychologists say smell is the most important sense for recalling deep memories."
Brewer uses the example of odors in beauty parlors, where the smell of permanent wave solutions can take him right back to his childhood - the times his mother and grandmother would do each other's hair on the back porch.
"Another good device is to map your neighborhood," he says. "Pretty soon people are showing each other their maps, and the storytelling starts as they begin to explain the points they've marked as significant."
Brewer practices what he preaches. Many of his poems - especially those in his collection "To Remember What Is Lost" - are "memory poems," and his personal essays all trade to some degree on recollection.
"I've made trips back to Indiana where I grew up because I was too dumb when I was growing up to pay attention to things," he says.
"My work is an attempt to keep in touch with what I've experienced. It's an act of salvation. As Ron Carlson says in one of his monologues, the future isn't hard to determine. You know where you'll be tomorrow. It's the past that's hard to figure out.
"Sometimes, if you haven't observed well, you have to manufacture details. Your first duty as a writer is to write as well as you can."