This is the past. We're in the present.
When I teach flashbacks to my creative writing students, I usually use the flashback paradigm set forth in Robert Olen Butler’s From Where You Dream, where Butler asks writers to anchor their flashback scene—and he wants full scenes, not just imagistic memories—to the hard sensual physical world. An object often works as the anchor, and object that contains within it the representation of memory.
There are seven steps to Butler’s technique:
I’ve condensed Butler’s ideas here—perhaps over-condensed them. (Go read his book. From Where You Dream is one of the best books I’ve found on writing.)
- The narrator awakes from an anxious dream.
- The narrator notices an object. The object is experienced sensually.
- “The object evokes a memory as vivid as a dream…” The narrator enters that memory.
- This memory leads to a second memory.
- In the second memory, the narrator does something, takes an action.
- Some part of that action brings the narrator back to the present.
- Now in the present, aware of the memories, the narrator takes an action.
At any rate, I often use Tom Jones’s “The Pugilist at Rest” as an example of the Butlerian flashback paradigm:
The other day – Memorial Day, as it happened – I was cleaning some stuff out of the attic when I came upon my old dress-blue uniform. It’s a beautiful uniform, easily the most handsome worn by any of the U.S. armed forces. The rich color recalled Jorgeson’s eyes for me – not that the color matched, but in the sense that the color of each was so startling. The tunic does not have lapels, of course, but a high collar with red piping and the traditional golden eagle, globe, and anchor insignia on either side of the neck clasp. The tunic buttons are not brassy – although they are in fact made of brass – but are a delicate gold in color, like Florentine gold. On the sleeves of the tunic my staff sergeant’s chevrons are gold on red. High on the left breast is a rainbow display of fruit salad representing my various combat citations. Just below there are my marksmanship badges; I shot Expert in rifle as well as pistol.
I opened a sandalwood box and took my various medals out of the large plastic bag I had packed them in to prevent them from tarnishing. The Navy Cross and the two Silver Stars are the best; they are such pretty things they dazzle you. I found a couple of Thai sticks in the sandalwood box as well. I took a whiff of the box and smelled the smells of Saigon – the whores, the dope, the saffron, cloves, jasmine, and patchouli oil. I put the Thai sticks back, recalling the three-day hangover that particular batch of dope had given me more than twenty-three years before. Again I looked at my dress-blue tunic. My most distinctive badge, the crowning glory, and the one of which I am most proud, is the set of Airborne wings. I remember how it was, walking around Oceanside, California – the Airborne wings and the high-and-tight haircut were recognized by all the Marines; they meant you were the crème de la crème, you were a recon Marine.
Recon was all Jorgeson’s idea….
Here the narrator’s rediscovery of his Marine Corps uniform is an anchor for the memory of being a Recon Marine that powers the flashback and at the same time gives forward momentum to the main narrative of the story.
And forward momentum is important. A story has to keep moving forward, even though any particular flashback scene loops the reader back into the past.
I have been thinking about this the past week while reading student stories. Most of them attempt flashbacks, and some of them write them very well. But many seem to end up focusing on the past—on the flashback, on the backstory—at the expense of the present story.
I tell these young writers—If the backstory is so important, write that. Forget the present. Make the flashback the story. But if you want your story to stay in the present, concentrate on moving forward.
And then I had a flashback myself last Tuesday while driving to town for Thanksgiving supplies. Driving along, thinking about stuff. About writing. About student writing. Crossed a pretty little river, thought about fly fishing. About my high school friend and fishing buddy, K. About how K was an athlete, a track guy, a long jumper, one of the best in the state. About how writing’s sort of like jumping, maybe. Maybe? Maybe not. Thought again about those students with their flashbacks. Then I had a strange unexpected shot of memory—the somersault long jump.
The somersault long jump was a technique that surfaced in the early/mid-1970s. The jumper would jump and simultaneously spin forward, spinning, and the spinning motion would give the jumper better distance. K told me he got an extra four to six inches using it—that’s a lot. But then sports officials banned the technique for safety reasons—jumpers would go spinning spinning out of control and bust their heads open.
Here’s what the somersault long jump looked like:
Get the connection? The flashback is the jumper’s spinning somersault, a spin into the past. Yet the jumper—the story—maintains forward motion. And the flashback can get you extra distance in your story. (Maybe).
You can do this. Just don't go spinning out of control and bust open your story's head.
I was looking for something on the wonderful National Archives website—now I forget what—when I came across these photos of child laborers.
I’ve written before of my interest in archival photographs, and about my fascination with forgotten people, people who have lived and died and are now—lost to history.
And here at the National Archives, a whole trove of forgotten children.
The photos were taken for the National Child Labor Committee between 1908 and 1912 by Lewis Hine. They are just amazing—pictures of a lost world, filled with lost people.
What scary photos! these poor kids, doing hard work that would kill me if I even tried to do it. The moments of interrupted narrative that are captured here—what is going on? Who are these people? What happened to them? I'll never know: the people are gone, though their images live on to haunt me....
National Child Labor Committee photographs
National Child Labor Committee
Lewis Wickes Hine
Spinners in a textile mill
And so the packing for my impending move to Kansas continues, and I came across this t-shirt:
My psychic powers tell me, dear reader, that you have two questions about this object.
The first question is, How Did You Acquire the Shirt?
In October of 2000 I was driving the cab early one morning, and I got a call to the emergency room at St. David’s Hospital. When I pulled up, a guy and two young women came out and got into the car. The guy was wearing a jacket but no shirt, and was carrying this shirt and a plastic bag. One of the young women told me he’d been in the ER to be treated for alcohol poisoning. The plastic bag was a vomit bag. I told them that if he vomited in the cab, there would be a $100 cleaning fee. The girl said he was all vomited out and empty.
So I drove them all back to the frat house, while the young women cooed over “poor Steve.”
Poor Steve indeed. I told them that "Back in my day, we didn't get alcohol poisoning!"
They didn't say anything--either they were speechless, or unimpressed.
And when I cleaned out my cab at the end of shift, I found that the guy had left the shirt behind.
The second question is, Why Did You Hang Onto the Shirt for So Long?
It was a perfectly good shirt. I washed it and even wore it a few times. Then it went into a box the last time I moved. I think for me objects acquire a sort of flypaper-like stickiness that holds onto memories—in this case, a memory of the cab days, and a memory of a drunk-ass kid who couldn't hang. Though there is also no doubt some laziness involved, and a poor job of packing during my 2003 move.
At any rate, I'm pretty sure that I can retain the memory without the shirt.
And the shirt is now in the dumpster….
One of the things I’ve been doing recently—one of the many things I’ve been doing—as this semester winds down, and my time at Texas A&M winds down, is saying goodbye to the classrooms I’ve taught in over the years.
All these rooms have ghosts, right? Memories. These were rooms full of good students and rotten students, nice students and rude ones. Sometimes I did some good teaching. Many times education happened!
The first classroom I ever taught a class in was Blocker 105, and I’ve written elsewhere about that first day—how I stood there, going over the syllabus for my composition class, and I looked up and out at the back of the classroom, and there was this—stain—on the wall. Stains. Big damn grease stains from where the heads of bored, sleepy students had been bumping and staining the wall—for years. A feeling of futility filled me right there and then! All those generations of bored students! But as I thought about it, I decided to be a teacher whose students weren’t all bored and falling asleep. And I sort of think I have been….
At any rate, the Blocker 105 was remodeled a couple of years ago, and the grease stains were painted over—and now, I guess, the grease stains are ghosts, too.