Wednesday, September 9, 2020

THE 'TRUE' IN FICTION: Three Ways to Use Memory to Deepen Fiction by Carol Coven Grannick

About halfway through the decade of writing, writing over, revising, and re-visioning my soon-to-debut verse novel, REENI'S TURN, I realized I'd once again done something common to my fiction: I'd skimmed over the deepest level of emotion that would not just uncover, but show the pumping heart of the story.

I knew this because I wasn't feeling anything when I read over the verses that showed my character daydreaming, dancing, hurting, hoping, failing, and leaping into uncertainty.

Part of it was language. Staying a step away from Reeni's voice. There were lots of qualifiers when removed, slipped me in closer. Pretty much, no more "I see"s, "I think"s, or "I try to"s, etc.

But there was something else missing. While memory, experience, and the stories of women I'd worked with as a clinical social worker threaded the tapestry that became REENI'S TURN, some of the depth I wanted—some of the depth I often feel—was still missing. I could feel that I was distant from Reeni's heart, and I didn't exactly know why.

I decided to write a letter from Reeni to me. I felt like I didn't know her as well as I wanted to, and this would help. My hand shook as I wrote. She was furious with me. "What are you afraid of?" she asked me via the legal pad and Zebra G-301 Blue gel pen that flows like a fountain. "I'm not you! I'm not afraid! I'm okay with whatever you want to say!"

Okay, Reeni. Who am I not to pay attention to my heroine?

I think—as much as I can remember that time—that I'd used the memories and emotions from the past without really viscerally remembering them. Now I needed to sink deeply into the feelings that are the most significant part of memory.

I set to work. And there were three ways my memories and the emotions attached to them infiltrated my work to deepen the character and the heart of the story:

1. Direct Experience: an exact experience you had becomes your character's (this occurs once in REENI'S TURN because it was organic to the character and conveyed an important 'space' of both complete safety and complete risk, setting the emotional environment of the story.

Backbend Without Hands
No music, we settle into quiet stretches 
before standing for backbends without hands, 
one at a time.
Ms. Allie faces me, 
circling my back, 
not holding, 
but tapping 
with her finger 
She says, 
Right here, I’m right here.
I backward-bend 
slowly smoothly
half a circle
tracing my head

to the floor
all moving muscle, 
no thoughts, no words, 
Ms. Allie urging, gentle,
there if I need her, steady, strong,
safe in the circle
of her untouching arms.

2. Indirect Experienceyour memory of an experience with the same or similar set of emotions infiltrates your character's different external experience:

Frost (partial verse)

In a minute Ms. Allie’s voice peels away my cocoon.
Reeni, come to the front and do it alone,

and a flicker of something changes inside
like tingling frost
on these winter windows

and the noise begins—

Is my turnout good enough? 
Are my arms soft or stiff? 
How is my arabesque?

I breathe in, blow out 
to warm the frost and try to pretend 
no one’s watching...

3. Associated Experience: your memory sparks an association (perhaps something you wish you had experienced or felt) that is more organic to your character, and that creates a completely new experience and set of emotions:

Choreography (partial verse)

I’m onstage alone as the spotlight glows, 
fear of the audience scatters like stage dust. 

Breathing deeply, air circles around me
bending with me, cushioning each move 
and my heart stretches to fill me, hold me

close to the world right up against
the edges of the sky.

I'd never claim that memory is the key to the heart of every story, but it is definitely the key to the heart of REENI'S TURN, the story of a shy, fearful tween's struggle with courage, body-acceptance, and identity. In the context of the underrepresented issue of the high incidence of dieting among young children, Reeni's persistence and self-awareness guides her through her misdirected journey to the brink of becoming the girl she dreams of being.

Join us for REENI'S TURN launch party on Sunday, 9/13, 2 pm Central Time. Fun conversation, giveaways, and lots of Q & A. Appropriate for children 9 and up and all adults! 

Are you a #teacher or #librarian? Email me via my website to receive the poster above!

Carol Coven Grannick's novel in verse, REENI'S TURN, debuts from Fitzroy Books. Her children's fiction and poetry appear or are forthcoming in CRICKET, HIGHLIGHTS, LADYBUG, HELLO, and BABYBUG. She has published poetry for adults in numerous print and online venues. She is a columnist for the SCBWI-IL PRAIRIE WIND, a reporter for Cynsations, and a member of the GROG BLOG. Her guest essays, interviews, and reviews appear on numerous writers' blogs.


  1. Thanks for the insight into your writing, Carol - and the great idea to have a character write a letter to you. Good luck with your launch party!

  2. Hi, Carol!

    Thank you for sharing three ways your memory and emotions supported the main character in your story to show her heart.

    Suzy Leopold

  3. Thank you, Carol, for the insight into the three ways you used your memory and emotions for REENI'S TURN. I look forward to reading your story.