Sound, Scene, Metaphor, Memoir

Last week, I wrote about using sensory details to take us to material from our lives that might merit examination in a piece of memoir. This morning, I woke up thinking about sounds from my childhood. It seems to me that we all have a few sounds that take us back into the past—sounds that carry us to some sort of emotional resonance. One of mine is the sound of a wringer washing machine.

My mother was a grade school teacher. My father was a farmer. Before I started school, I spent the weekdays in my grandmother’s house. On Saturday mornings, I would wake in my own bed to the sound of my mother’s wringer washer running on our wash porch. That sound—the hum of the motor as it turned the agitator, the water splashing against the sides of the drum—told me my mother was home. Knowing that gave me such a feeling of comfort because my mother’s steadfast love was the one constant in what was otherwise, thanks to my father’s anger, a turbulent childhood. Those Saturday morning, I lay in bed dozing to the sound of that washing machine, luxuriating in the feeling of safety and calm that it gave me.

If I examine that memory, sound connects me to an object, and that object connects me to my mother. She was a woman of devotion, a meek woman who wasn’t always able to say what she felt inside. Instead, she showed her love through her actions. She was kind and compassionate and unassuming. She was the kind of person you’d barely notice in a group of people. But she was also a woman of devotion, the oldest of six children who grew up taking care of her younger siblings. She married my father when she was 41, and four years later I came along, a surprise pregnancy. When I was barely a year old, my father lost his hands in a farming accident. My mother was his faithful companion, no matter the turmoil he brought into her life, the rest of their time together.

She was, then, like that wringer washing machine: steady, sturdy, practical, constant. She was a quiet woman, yes, but she also had a strength that others—my father and I chief among them—came to count on.

So, you see, when I recall the sound of that washing machine, I can’t help but feel an emotional resonance. The washing machine becomes a metaphor, containing, as it does, all the qualities of my mother that I admired and that I miss to this day. She was a woman who endured.

I don’t want to write a simile. I don’t want to say, “My mother was like her wringer washing machine.” Instead, I want to put her into a scene. I want to go back in time to the moment I wake on a Saturday morning and hear the motor churning. I want to get out of bed and go to the wash porch and see her there, putting clothes into the drum. I want to see her turn to me, her lips upturned ever so slightly into the beginnings of a grin. I want to go to her and hold to her leg and press my face into the soft cotton of her apron and smell the bleach and the powder of the Oxydol and the wooden clothespins in her apron pockets, and to know that I’m wanted and loved.

Then memory takes me to a single moment, the one in which my mother lets me run the clean clothes through the automatic wringer to squeeze the excess water out of them before she hangs them on the line to dry. I love to do this, and she always cautions me to be careful not to get my finger between the rollers of the wringer, but on this day, she’s looking away for just an instant, and my finger gets too close, and much to my dismay, the rollers are pinching it, and I’m howling, and my mother is hurrying to reverse the wringers and free me.

My father lost his hands when he got them caught between the snapping rollers of the shucking box on his corn picker, and because of that, my memory of the wringer pinching my finger takes on another layer of resonance.

It’s all metaphor, all our memories of objects and sights and tastes and textures and sounds. If I write this scene, I don’t want to call attention to that fact. I just want the details to do the work. At some point, though, I want to know, as the writer, that those details are connecting to my parents and our circumstances. I want to use the scene I write as a way of thinking about what it was to have our life.

I remember the shock of the pain I felt. I remember how, once my mother freed me, I unfairly blamed her, how for at least a while I believed that she didn’t love me at all, and yet I wanted and needed her to wrap an ice cube in a wash cloth and hold it to my bruised finger, to tell me I was all right, to hold me on her lap and to rock me.

In memoir, scenes are never there merely for the sake of nostalgia. The details have to be doing the work of helping the writer think more fully about experience.

So what are your sounds? To whom do they connect you? What specific memories do they invite onto the page? Construct a scene. Don’t write a simile. Don’t call attention to the metaphor. Just let the characters interact with the object that brings the sound to life. If that sound has taken you to an experience that’s rich and complicated, you’ll see how dramatization can become a means of thinking and feeling more deeply than nostalgia ever allows.


  1. Jeanne Voelker on December 12, 2016 at 11:58 am

    Well, a little guy has to blame someone! That’s normal for little guys. 🙂

    • Lee Martin on December 13, 2016 at 4:00 pm

      I guess you’re right about that, Jeanne! I hope you and your family have a wonderful holiday season.

  2. Vicki Yates on December 15, 2016 at 4:37 pm

    I have recently read two of your memoir pieces (in different essay anthologies), and I find your writing compelling, profound, and eloquent. Always an avid reader, especially since retirement from two vocations (Presbyterian ministry and high school Advanced Placement English teaching), I find myself more and more drawn to memoirs. Some that I read are written by “famous” people and others by everyday folk whose more anonymous and unheralded lives are just as interesting and rich, if not more so. I have dabbled a bit in writing down some of what I think of as significant and fascinating events and details from my personal and family experiences, but I cannot conceive of any of it ever being published. For me, there is value in just the reflection and discipline of writing.
    Obviously your writing has tremendous value for readers, and thus I’m wondering about your perception of what makes memoirs “publishable” and worthy of public consumption. Of course, I know that the quality of writing is a major determining factor, but I am also thinking that some sort of inside knowledge and connections within the publishing world must also figure prominently. I’m just curious to know what your take on this is.
    Thanks for the solid, enduring impact of your writing, your openness and honesty in offering your experiences and insights to your readers. I, for one, have enjoyed and benefited substantially from reading your essays. So I plan to sample your fiction as well soon!

    • Lee Martin on December 16, 2016 at 10:46 am

      Thanks so much, Vicki. I think the thing that matters most in what makes a memoir publishable is the artistic shaping of experience in a way that makes it universal, even if we don’t share that experience with the author. That is to say, something in a story well-told speaks to readers because it touches universal feelings of love, suffering, sacrifice, etc.

  3. Lauren on December 15, 2016 at 4:52 pm

    The sound of rain reminds me of summer nights in Arkansas when I was a kid. I’m not sure why, but it comforts me. To this day, I have to have the rain playing just to help me sleep.

    • Lee Martin on December 16, 2016 at 10:47 am

      I like that sound of rain, too, Lauren. Thanks so much for reading my blog and for taking the time to leave a comment.

  4. Kacey on December 15, 2016 at 5:26 pm

    Incredible writing here.

    I recall the sound of my parents minivan as we set out to go to church, as we did every Friday night.

    And the time as a child, merely 7 years old, that I held my breath for so long that I passed out next to the minivan, with my older r brother Kevin kicking me I’m the side to get me back into consciousness, and in hiding the event from our parent, and the sound that the minivan mad as it started up, and brought me back into reality.

    We never told my parent what had happened here on that Friday night. But hat sound of a vehicle struggling to start, as my kind had done that night.

    I will always says remember that. 🙂

    • Lee Martin on December 16, 2016 at 10:48 am

      That’s a great story, Kacey! Thanks so much for sharing it. Thanks, too, for reading my blog.

  5. Rami Ungar on December 15, 2016 at 6:16 pm

    Hey Lee! Long time no see. How’s Ohio State these days?

    • Lee Martin on December 16, 2016 at 10:48 am

      Hey, Rami. Things are going fine at OSU. I’ve been following your adventures via Facebook!

  6. Lorraine on December 15, 2016 at 7:04 pm

    I love the description of your mother and the memories of your interaction with her. Beautiful.

    • Lee Martin on December 16, 2016 at 10:49 am

      Thank you, Lorraine. And thank you for reading my blog and for taking the time to leave a comment.

  7. Mitch Teemley on December 15, 2016 at 7:28 pm

    I’m a writer and a director. I’ve used sense memory as a rehearsal technique with actors, but never thought to employ it on myself as a writer. Wonderful approach, Lee!

    • Lee Martin on December 16, 2016 at 10:50 am

      Mitch, I’m so glad you read my blog and that you took the time to leave a comment. I often think of the links between writing and acting. How about Stanislavsky for building characters, not only on the stage but also on the page.

  8. ps on December 16, 2016 at 12:49 am

    great work

    • Lee Martin on December 16, 2016 at 10:51 am

      Thank you!

  9. Ruchi on December 16, 2016 at 8:41 am

    Incredible piece of writing!
    Petrichor being that sound which reminds me of my childhood days! I used to make paper-boats and enjoy the beautiful sight of rain. 🙂 <3

    • Lee Martin on December 16, 2016 at 10:51 am

      Thanks for sharing that memory, and thanks, too, for reading my blog and for taking the time to leave a comment.

  10. Angela Kempe on December 17, 2016 at 7:54 am

    Hello. I just stumbled on your website and read your blog. I haven’t read any of your books, but I can tell that you are a superb writer by this wonderful insight and your ability to tell this childhood story here. It makes me want to definitely start following you!
    I am also a writer (very unknown- self published memoir). And now that I’m starting to get more serious about it, disciplining myself to finish my second fiction and do a weekly flash fiction blog, I’m starting to realize that there is a fine line between getting into the technical and poetical aspect of writing and writing for the reader. Do we as writers go too far with the thesaurus or is our job to lead the reader into this new place if that’s what point we are trying to make? What do you think?

    • Lee Martin on December 17, 2016 at 3:19 pm

      Angela, I’m always looking for good stories, well told, and that usually means letting the story connect with a reader. I recall a line from a Miller Williams poem: “Beware of any word you learned and were proud of learning. It will go bad. It will fall off the page.” The poem is “Let Me Tell You,” and it has great advice for the writer. Thanks so much for reading my blog and for taking the time to leave a post. I do a new post each Monday, and I have a craft book, “Telling Stories,” coming out this summer.

  11. J Hardy Carroll on December 17, 2016 at 9:31 am

    John D. MacDonald wrote of a similar process to access memory by taking a single object from childhood and fitting it into the context of its use.
    “You take an object. Roller skate. The kind from way back, that fastened to the shoes instead of coming with the shoes attached. Look and feel and design of the skate key. With old worn shoes you turn the key too much and you start to buckle the sole of the shoe. Spin one wheel and listen to the ball bearinged whir, and feel the gritty texture of the metal abraded by sidewalks. Remember how slow and strange and awkward it felt to walk again, after all the long Saturday on skates, after going way to the other end of town. Remember the soreness where the strap hit the top of your ankle. When it got too sore, you could stop and undo the strap and run it through the top laces of your shoe. Thick dark scab on the abraded knee. The sick-making smack of skull against sidewalk. Something about the other end of the skate key…Of course! A hex wrench orifice that fit the nut on the bottom of the skate so you could expand or contract it to fit the shoe. If you didn’t tighten it enough, or if it worked loose, then the skate would stealthily lengthen, the clamps no longer fitting the edge of the shoe sole, and at some startling moment the next thrust would spin the skate around, and you either took one very nasty spill, or ended up coasting on the good skate, holding the other foot with dangling skate up in the air until you came to a place to sit down and get the key out and tighten everything again. Roller skate or sandbox or apple tree or cellar door.”
    Mind you, this was in a detective story. It had no bearing on the plot. It was a little jewel passed on to anyone interested by a gifted, prolific, and successful writer. I have often used this technique to go back and notice small details that can often show more than exposition ever could.

    • Lee Martin on December 17, 2016 at 3:16 pm

      Thanks so much for sharing that exercise from McDonald. Amazing, isn’t it, what those seemingly small details can do. Thanks so much for reading my blog and for taking the time to leave a comment.

  12. irma saxell on December 17, 2016 at 2:03 pm

    i really like your guidance in writing. I am thinking of doing some writing myself. I did have the makings of a mystery novel over 10 years ago; unfinished. But I would love to write well. Thank you for the inspiration!

    • Lee Martin on December 17, 2016 at 3:15 pm

      Thank you, Irma! I put a new post up every Monday, and I have a craft books, “Telling Stories,” coming out next summer. Writing is something we can count on in these crazy times, yes?

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