Monday, 23 September 2013

The Spark That Ignites The Memory

'Seldom have I heard a train pass by in the night and not wished I was on it.'


This is an opening sentence of a book I love. Or rather it is not. At the start of Paul Theroux's 'The Great Indian Railway Bazar' he writes:

'Ever since childhood, when I lived within earshot of the Boston and Maine, I have seldom heard a train go by and not wished I was on it.'

I have adapted it in my mind to better fit what unlocks my own memories. 

I lived away from my native England a lot as a child – Singapore (where I was born), Malaysia, Germany – and used to return to Folkestone in Kent for holidays to stay with my grandparents. They were the happiest of times. My grandparents lived close to the main railway line to London. I am old enough to remember steam trains. I used to stand on the footbridge and wave at the engine drivers as they sped under me. At night I would lie in the front bedroom, listening for the telltale rumble as another train gathered speed from the distant station, and I'd lie there picturing it beneath the bridge – the driver at the controls, the passengers still sorting out luggage on the racks or unfolding their newspapers. Looking out at the lights and the goings-on in the windows of houses as they passed. I strained my ears listening to the sound of the clacking wheels as it rushed on through the night into the distance. Reading Paul Theroux's opening words for the first time (and every time since), caused a kind of spark in my mind, followed by the unlocking of all these memories. I was back there. The sound of the trains. The smell of the smoke from the steam trains. The smell of those old station waiting rooms. The smell of my grandparents' house and the fruit-bowl in the living-room. 

Not all writers can achieve this on-cue. At least not with a wide audience. It is what I look for in a writer and it is also, of course, what I strive to achieve myself as a writer. In order to achieve it one probably needs a good understanding of people. Empathy. We also need to read widely in order to see how other writers do it and we need to be aware of what excites these sparks in other readers. I find social media very useful in this respect. Twitter is particularly helpful, because of the 140 character limitation. Often I tweet a single sentence from one of my books or from a short story. I can fairly reliably gauge what sparks peoples imagination and unlocks their memories the most, by the number of favourites and retweets I get (allowing for possible influences of time). This way I am constantly building up and adapting an arsenal of incendiary words and phrases, or subject matter, that I know have power. Some last, where others are dependent upon what is happening in the world at the time, but it is a great way to train yourself and to stay sharp.

The sentence that regularly receives the most notice when I post on Twitter is:

'The chink of bottles, somewhere in the early morning traffic haze' 

This seems to have that special power to cause sparks in people's minds and to unlock memories. I think we must all have been there. Stepping out into the street in the relative hush of the early morning. In this case there is activity - hence the haze caused by commuter traffic fumes, perhaps a low level hum - but there is an absence of sound clutter. The stillness is very apparent to us. Then, all of a sudden in this void there is a sharp sound. Not loud, but very noticeable. It is immediately recognisable as the chink of two bottles as they bang together. Our imagination lights up. We picture a milkman, perhaps, walking hurriedly from his milk-float (cart / van) to a terrace of houses, carrying a rack containing six cold, white bottles covered in condensation. The curtains in the houses are still drawn. A cat sitting on the step of number 8 darts out of the milkman's way. He is whistling a happy tune as he steps across a low fence to the next house. He'll be in trouble if he's seen. He has been asked by the lady at number 10 not to do that. Her mesembryanthemums are getting damaged. Why don't Blue Tits peck the tops off milk bottles to drink the cream anymore? Why doesn't milk taste like it used to? Why did granddad's porridge always taste better than your mum's and who was that boy you knew who used to faint at the breakfast table and once fell face first into his bowl of cornflakes?

The fact is that the chink you heard could have been caused by a marble being rolled by two boys at a coke bottle while they waited for the school bus. It could have been a lady putting glass jars into a recycle bin or  a wino waking up in a shop doorway and knocking over his empty cider bottle. But our minds and memories are acutely tuned. There are minute differences. Knowing this is important for a writer who wants to unlock people's memories. Not that sparking a host of different memories is necessarily a problem. I notice this now when I am reading. I learn from it. 

N.B. The real life situation that inspired this piece of flash fiction (see previous post - Show Don't Tell) was set at a street cafe in Luang Prabang, Laos. An old vagrant lady was collecting discarded bottles for money. She actually lived in a kitchen cabinet on some waste ground by the road and used to blow cigarette smoke out through the plug-hole in the sink. But that doesn't matter. It has the power to unlock memories and I don't mind if those are different to the ones I experienced. The story is covered in full in the book Long Road Hard Lessons

So who does it best and how do they achieve it?

Understanding people and being observant, I think. Having a good breadth of life experience also helps, but most of all I think it is about empathy. How much a writer notices the feelings we share. As someone who loves to read short stories, I am bound to say that I feel it is often best achieved by great short story writers. Less is more. These writers are adept and focussing on what are the key elements. The concentrated bits of information that expand inside the minds of readers like one of those dried Chinese flowers in a cup of tea, when the hot water is poured in. There is no space for lengthy explanations. The writer must transport the reader with a single sentence or even a word. A flash, as a memory is unlocked and proceeds to unfold, and unfold. And with that perfect principle in mind, I will say no more. I will simply take the books of two great writers at random from the shelf behind me and give you the opening sentence of each. In each case, so little opens up so much in our head.

The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck (one of the best exponents of 'less is more')

'To the red country and part of the gray country of Oklahoma, the last rains came gently, and they did not cut the scarred earth.'

Wildlife by Richard Ford

'In the fall of 1960, when I was sixteen and my father was for a time not working, my mother met a man named Warren Miller and fell in love with him.'

If you would like to read the bestselling travel book 'Long Road, Hard Lessons' by Mark Swain,
you can find this along with his two collections of short stories on Amazon, Smashwords etc.
In the UK you can also find his books in all branches of Waterstones Bookshops.


  1. Love this post ~ and I always like that tweet of yours too!

    1. Ah that felt nice. Thanks Terry, I always appreciate a bit of flattery on a cold grey Monday, especially from someone of your caliber. Hope all well with you. x

  2. You've managed to stir up many of my own memories in this post, Mark. I, too, am of an age to well remember steam trains, milk floats and glass marbles. I travelled to school on a steam train for several years, and have played umpteen games of marbles. I also still miss the sound of the milkman every morning - and milk in plastic bottles is simply not the same! So, I really enjoyed reading this post. Oddly enough, until I hopped over to read it, I had it in my head that yours was a travel blog. To know that you're also (chiefly?) a writer is even better. As to all the advice you offer, I couldn't agree more. As a naturally garrulous person, the 'less is more' idea is one I've had to keep in sharp focuswhile I've written my books.
    Thank you for connecting with me on Twitter. I'm a complete 'newbie' to that, and just feeling my way atm. Bear with me. I may or may not get better at it.
    I may have to post this using my own name (Patricia Bunting) as I can't seen to get my WordPress/pen name to register.

  3. Hi again, Mark. It dawned on me once I'd posted the above comment, that I hadn't actually mentioned what my pen name is! It's Mille Thom. I also now see that you have different blogs, so I'll follow this one now. Sorry about the confusion. (As a former teacher, I should know to do my h/w first.)

  4. Hi Pat, and many thanks for your comments. It's always great when one's ideas connect with those of others. I look forward to reading your tweets etc. Yes I have more than one blog to deal with different 'compartments' of my life. All the best, Mark