We all love ‘I Remember’ exercises. Based on the poem by Joe Brainard, and popularised by the likes of Jack Collom, these pieces of writing simply start each line with the words ‘I remember’ then evoke some memory. Some lines selected from Joe:
I remember jumping into piles of leaves and the dust, or whatever it is, that rises.
I remember raking leaves but I don’t remember burning leaves. I don’t remember what we ‘did’ with them.
I remember ‘Indian Summer’. And for years not knowing what it meant, except that I figured it had something to do with Indians.
I remember exactly how I visualised the Pilgrims and the Indians having the first Thanksgiving dinner together. (Very jolly!)
I remember Jack Frost. Pumpkin pie. Gourds. And very blue skies.
I remember Halloween.
I remember using getting dressed up as a hobo or a ghost. One year I was a skeleton.
I remember one house that always gave you a dime and several houses that gave you five-cent candy bars.
I remember after Halloween my brother and me spreading all out loot out and doing some trading.
I remember always at the bottom of the bag lots of dirty pieces of candy corn.
I remember the smell (not very good) of burning pumpkin meat inside jack-o’-lanterns.
I remember orange and black jellybeans at Halloween. And pastel-colored ones for Easter.
I remember ‘hard’ Christmas candy. Especially the ones with flower designs. I remember not liking the ones with jelly in the middle very much.
And do watch this trailer too.
This is a form that has been adapted by other writers: see, for example, Georges Perec’s own I Remember, and Zeina Abirached’s graphic memoir I Remember Beirut.
I Remembers rank among my favourite forms of writing, because:
1. the writing tends to be natural and easy, unforced and uncluttered – writing from the heart, writing from the gut.
2. the writing tends to be concrete, vivid, specific, e.g., the house that gave you a dime, and elsewhere in Brainard’s poem very light faded blue jeans, ice cubes in the aquarium, giving Aunt Ruby stationery or scarves for special occasions.
3. the writing usually shows rather than tells: the contents of Brainard’s version – references to movie stars and songs, the clothes, food, hardship and simple pleasures – conjure up a whole time and place, for example.
4. they are economical – each line or section stops when it has to stop, and then on to the next …
5. I love lists (if you couldn’t tell).
6. the form is regarded as both poem and/or prose and/or either/neither, and I love writing that plays with or maybe ignores categories, and simply enjoys being good writing.
7. the process of free association often takes us to places we never expected – what arises arises. In the extract above I love how we linger in specific memories of Halloween and then zip quickly via Easter to Christmas, where we will linger a page or two before moving on again – and returning elsewhere. There are many such threads and patterns through the book.
8. the writing is uncensored, authentic. For example, I note in the example above the reference to the Pilgrims and Indians celebrating a jolly Thanksgiving. Now: I don’t think it’s stretching things very far to say that that recollection is of a romanticised association! And we could of course parse that, and discuss what it means, e.g., in terms of postcolonial theory. But the actual writing here is simply being honest – it’s about recalling a perception, a time and place – and it is being true to that. (Even if it’s not true to the historical record, and we hope there will have been scope for future reconstruction!) Elsewhere in the poem we get gender- and race-based descriptions that are products of that time, and there is an awful lot of sexually graphic and extremely fruity content. It means I’m always careful about selecting extracts for classes! But again: this has a truth.
9. the simplest things are often the best
10. repeating myself – the writing is natural and easy, unforced and uncluttered
There is of course a risk that this sort of writing unearths deep, sad memories. Maybe that’s not a risk. Maybe we need to confront those memories from time to time? But maybe, unless that is its purpose, we also need to set limits around that sort of writing (or have a therapist to hand). I often suggest that writers focus on, e.g., happy memories. The tone in the writing often ends up being quite soft and nostalgic, anyway.
So: this week, do an ‘I Remember’. But also introduce some twists, or focuses. For example:
* Remember your schooldays, a holiday, Christmas, a wedding, a love affair
* Remember your first times
* Remember your blessings (count them, even)
* Remember your failures (but maybe limit them … and only if you next:)
* Remember your successes (unlimited, and remembered after your failures – let’s end on a high, please)
* Draw (and write) your own graphic I Remember in comic strip format.
* And maybe do ‘I remember’ for characters in your fictions? This can involve a slight shift in the writing, and perhaps a bit more thought than some of the more natural, I-centred versions, but it can also be a good way to graft some of your fictional content on to your natural, easy, remembering voice
* I don’t remember (good for surfacing secrets and lies and subtexts and regrets and all that other good story stuff)
* And invent your own rememberings too! (Give us some prompts and ideas too, if you like.)
You can probably write forever this way. You might want to set some limits (time; focuses). Or you might not.
Enjoy! These pieces really are some of the most fun in writing.
Update, January/February 2020: Here are others I’ve subsequently written (also see some more by others in the comments): I Remember the Library, I Remember York, I Remember Bobbie Louise Hawkins. I also added links for the books by Perec and Abirached, and altered the opening quotation to give a fuller illustration of the workings of Joe’s text. If you know of other examples, please add in a comment below.