Music and Memory Part One: Music as a Time Machine

There’s this old Ruth Etting song, “All of Me,” a jazzy little number, that’s been popularized and covered and remixed since its conception back in 1930 something. I first heard it in high school (1999, maybe?) when NOFX, a popular punk band, covered it. My grandfather, who passed away in 2010, had heard and loved it long before then.

Everyone called him Butch, though his real name was Robert. I remember all the grandfatherly things about him: his overalls, covered in dirt from a day’s work. His long, calloused fingers, crooked from years of DIY labor. His gruff yet warm voice, an audible dichotomy heard whenever he announced “Lunch!” or “Time to open presents!” during holidays and birthdays. His singing, too. Always singing.

Toward the end of his life, he suffered multiple strokes. His speech became a slur of sounds. Pieces of his mind began to slip away. Our bodies can betray us. His did.

But he never stopped singing.

I don’t know that my grandfather was an exceptionally good singer or anything. He just enjoyed it. Who doesn’t? Even the worst of us are compelled to belt out pop choruses in the confines of our cars. (Come on. You know you are guilty of this.) So, despite the fact that his body was breaking down, my grandfather sang on. So much so that the assisted living facility he roomed in set up weekly karaoke, which my grandfather led: Butch: The Man and His Music. His most popular tune? “All of Me.” It transported him back to before, when his body and mind were his to control; back to moments and memories that were of great personal significance to him. Music. It’s powerful. 

Last summer, I stumbled upon this video. It depicts the power of music with people who suffer from Alzheimer’s. It also reminded me of my grandfather. Take a look.

I couldn’t help but think about the intersection of music and memory. About the overwhelming nostalgia that seizes us when a  long forgotten song suddenly crackles through the radio, catching us by surprise. Music is a time machine, and we’re all Marty McFlys along for the ride. That’s its power. 

This universal truth, that music is powerful in a way that is tied directly to memory and experience, got me thinking about my Creative Writing class. How can I bring this power into the classroom in order to help empower writers? We were just about to begin a memoir unit, but I could tell that they were feeling drained and a bit uninspired after composing fiction and poetry all of quarter one.

So here’s what I did:

LESSON PLAN: MUSIC AND MEMORY (Memoir/Narrative Writing)

1. I begin by showing students the above video, asking them to note any initial reactions to discuss upon its completion. They make the connections. They get it. Music is powerful! Look what it did for Henry!

2. We’re going to create some lists, I tell students, regarding three different periods of our lives: elementary school, middle school, and high school. Create a playlist from your life that corresponds to each of these periods. What are the songs that matter?

I remind students that songs that matter aren’t necessarily the same as the songs you love(d). It might be the song that you and your father would listen to on the radio during long drives. It might be the song that, though you don’t particularly like it, makes you think of all those middle school dances. It might be a theme song from your favorite Saturday morning cartoon as a child.

We make lists. They look something like this:

PicMonkey Collage MUSIC BLOG

We chat. We sing quietly at our tables. We laugh. And the more we write, the more the memories begin to surface. I remind them that writing is a way to unearth memories. 

3. Then, I take a page from Penny Kittle’s Write Beside Them for our writing prompt:

 Brainstorm the way music and memory dance together. Choose a song from your lists. Write the memory of that song, the setting, whatever rises to the surface when thinking about music (35).

We write for ten minutes straight in our writer’s notebooks. I remind them of our quick-writing mantra (also stolen from Kittle):

  • Write the entire time
  • Ignore the critic in your head
  • Relax, have fun

If a writer hits a wall, I tell them to choose a different song and begin again.

But they have no problem writing. How could they? They have a direct, personal connection to the topic.

All of this happens before I ever mention the word “memoir.” It has to. Otherwise, I risk scaring them off; I risk the writing becoming just an assignment rather than a piece they care about, one that can be crafted into something killer. The best writing is infused with the writer’s voice, the writer’s personality. If the writer doesn’t care about what they’re writing, then I promise you that the reader won’t either. 

In Writing the Memoir: From Truth to Art, author Judith Barrington encourages writers to overcome the debilitating “WHO CARES ABOUT MY WRITING!” feelings that young writers (and all writers, really) face:

The red ink, the echoes of ‘nobody could possibly be interested in my life,’ and the implications of self-indulgence raised by the persistent ‘who cares?’, all combine to crush self-expression. One of your first tasks, then, is to ask yourself: why do I care about this? The answer will make you feel entitled to tell your own story – to accept that it is not worthy of being written down but material for literature – something you want to revise and craft until it is beautiful (35). 

I don’t want to crush self-expression before we even get started; I need my writers to be invested. Lists and quick writes prep. rather than intimidate. They’re ready to write.

4. After quick-writing, we share. Some writers read. Others summarize what they wrote about. We discuss the “emotional truths” and moments that music connects us to. Then, I give them excerpts from the first two chapters of Barrington’s book. I ask them to read carefully, annotating for takeaways (I define takeaways as anything we, as writers, should know going forward).

And that’s how we begin memoir: we use music as a time machine. And I’ve everything I need from that class period: 1) student investment 2) a few pages of writing ideas 3) memories of 8th grade dances and Montell Jordan’s “This is How We Do It.”

Read on. Write on.

Writing the Memoir – Chapters 1 and 2

In Music and Memory Part Two, I’ll share mentor texts and mini-lessons I use to move the memoir writing forward. 

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