Memory, Narrative, and a Journey Home


I’m still on vacation and so am writing this from the road.  In part, my travels have taken me back to New York, and more specifically, to the small town north of the city where I grew up.  I’ve seen my old schools, the part of town along the coast where I used to hang out with friends, restaurants where I used to go with family and friends.  And I even braved a visit to the tiny dead end street where I grew up.  I stood outside my old home, marveling at how much the house had changed and, at the same time, how familiar it all looked. 

And, of course, as I saw all these old haunts, stories flooded my mind.  I remembered people I hadn’t thought of in years, decades even.  I thought of things I’d done with my parents and siblings.  I was struck by how small everything looked.  The images and recollections I’d carried around with me for the past twenty years had been those of a younger man, and in some cases, of a young boy.  The world seems a larger place now; my past is smaller.

I shared as many stories as I could call to mind with my wife and especially with my girls.  I told them about things I’d done with my Mom and Dad, the grandparents they never had a chance to know, hoping that my memories would breathe life into the static images of Gram and Grampsie that they get from photo albums and the framed pictures we have scattered around the house. I reminisced with my brother, comparing his recollections with mine, reconciling the differences and marveling at those images that continue to resonate so forcefully with both of us. 

All through those days in my home town, I was struck again and again by the power of memory, of shared history, and of storytelling.  Narrative is more than the profession I pursue.  It is more than a form of entertainment.  We are storytelling creatures.  We use narrative to define ourselves, to mark the milestones in our lives, to place ourselves and each other in the larger context of Family and personal history.  Our stories help our children understand us and so themselves.  They reinforce identity and values. 

Perhaps most important, stories bring us together.  They allow us to share experiences and emotions, achievements and failures.  And they allow those who follow in our paths to learn from those things. 

How does this relate to the stories we write?  What do the stories I told my kids this week have to do with the fantasy tales that I publish?  To be honest, I’m not entirely sure.  On the face of it, they seem so different as to be two different species of narrative.  But when all is said and done, our books and stories are about people, about emotion, about achievement and failure.  When our stories work, they touch on commonalities of human experience.  Yes, we are fascinated by fantasy stories because they transport us to magical places and times, because they seem exciting and extraordinary.  But we care about the characters because we relate to them, because their stories speak to something in our own lives.  Maybe that’s the connection. 

I believe my daughters enjoyed seeing my old town.  I think they enjoyed the stories my brother and I told them, and the ones they overheard us telling each other.  They weren’t paying attention the whole time, and after a while they got bored and went off to play with their cousins.  But I know that they absorbed much of what they heard, perhaps more than they could consciously remember right now.  They were steeped in family for a few days.  They were steeped in story.  Maybe someday they’ll take their own kids to New York and show them some of the places we went.  Certainly they’ll bring their kids to the home we live in now, and they’ll tell their own stories — about their friends, about each other, about their mother and me.  And their kids will be fascinated.  At least for a while.  Then they’ll get bored and run off with their cousins and start working on stories of their own.

David B. Coe

6 comments to Memory, Narrative, and a Journey Home

  • Wonderful post, David. You’re right; memory and story are ways in which we communicate. It doesn’t matter if we write fantasy or narrative nonfiction. Our experiences always seep into our writing and that’s how we are able to connect to our characters and, hopefully, how our readers connect with them also. Through shared experiences we are able to touch others regardless of genre.


  • Thanks for the comment, Jen. It’s been an interesting week, filled not only family memories, but also with museums, Broadway shows, etc. And I’m thinking a lot about narrative as it relates not only to memory, but also different types of creative expression. Maybe I’ll look at that for next week’s post.

  • I always find other narrative forms to be eye opening to writing — Broadway plays, movies, poetry, music, etc. Never really thought about family stories in that way. Thanks for giving me something to think about.

  • My pleasure, my friend. Am hanging out with my older brothers now and am even more steeped in family lore. Great fun, and grist for the creative mill.

  • In 1999, we spent the weekend at the Virginia Renaissance Festival, which happened to be in Fredericksburg, where I had lived for several years as a kid. We moved away in 1974, so I was shocked to realize I still knew the way to my old house, my old school and all my favorite places, especially one particular hill in the battlefield where we used to play war. It was very cool.

  • It sounds very cool. I was amazed at how much I remembered as I walked and drove around the area where I grew up. It was as if it was all hard-wired into my brain. Suddenly all the info was right there.