Embracing the memory blur

Friday, September 22, 2017
Sian Prior interviewed by Amy Adeney

Sian Prior headshot
Sian Prior

Understanding the way the imagination fills gaps in your memories can be a productive tool in memoir writing, says Dr. Sian Prior. Ahead of her upcoming workshop, we talked to Sian about embracing the blur between memory and imagination.

At your upcoming workshops, participants will learn how to access ‘lost’ memories for their writing – can you elaborate a little on this?

We’re all familiar with the term ‘memory bank’. I think it’s a dodgy metaphor because ‘bank’ implies safe storage and easy retrieval. In fact our memories are more like a jigsaw puzzle with many pieces missing. I found this sentence in an academic paper by an Australian neuroscientist: ‘While we have an unlimited capacity to store a lifetime of experiences, the pre-processing system (working memory) that determines what we remember from moment to moment, and therefore what we retain in the long-term, has a very limited capacity.’ So how do we access the memories we’ve apparently failed to retain? In our workshop we’ll look at some useful memory triggers, including our five senses, visual images, and music.

You talk about embracing the blur between memory and imagination – has there been a time when this was particularly important in your own writing?

It was incredibly useful when I was writing my memoir ‘Shy’ (Text Publishing). I realised that the flaws and gaps in my memories, and the ‘filling in’ that my imagination had done, could tell me a lot about how my identity as a ‘shy’ person had been built up over the years. I compared my memories of my teenage years with my diary entries from that time and discovered that I had unconsciously ‘edited’ my memories, probably because I remembered most clearly the experiences that had caused me emotional pain and confirmed my sense of myself as someone who suffered from social anxiety.

Are there any memoirists whose work has been an inspiration to you?

Joan Didion’s grief memoir ‘The Year of Magical Thinking’ was quite influential in how I wanted to approach my memoir ‘Shy’. She is acutely conscious of the need to deal with the emotion of self-pity when writing about painful experiences. If the reader perceives the memoirist is consumed by self-pity the reader can become impatient and switch off their empathy. Self-pity implies emotional stasis, whereas I think we read memoirs to get a sense of a writer working through their feelings and experiences to arrive at a new place.

You say that writing can be a form of therapy, and a way to find relief from suffering. Did this play a role in writing ‘Shy: a memoir’?

Writing ‘Shy: a memoir’ was intensely therapeutic for me.  The research I did about shyness/social anxiety allowed me to stop ‘blaming’ myself for my anxieties, and to understand that a large percentage of the population are just as shy as me. I no longer feel ashamed of my shyness, and as a consequence it is not nearly as debilitating. I have been grateful for the many emails my shy readers have sent to me after reading the memoir, letting me know how helpful (perhaps even therapeutic) they have found it.

You are also a singer and clarinettist – do you ever use music as a tool in your writing process?

I usually don’t listen to music when I’m writing as I find it distracting, especially if there are lyrics. However I have twice now found myself furiously making notes whilst listening to classical concerts at the Melbourne Recital Centre, and one of those sets of notes became the second-last chapter of ‘Shy: a memoir’. The other may be the first chapter of my next book.

About Dr. Sian Prior

Dr Sian Prior has been a writer and broadcaster for 25 years. She has presented programs on four different ABC networks, and her writing has been published in many newspapers, magazines and literary journals. Sian also teaches non-fiction at RMIT and Writing as Therapy for The School of Life. Her book ‘Shy: a memoir’ was published by Text Publishing in 2014 and in 2015 she completed a PhD in Creative Writing. 

About Amy Adeney

Amy Adeney is a Writers Victoria intern. She is a primary teacher and founder of Busy Bookworms, a bookclub for preschoolers.