Memoir and personal essays are all about the self but sometimes something impedes our pursuit of the “I” character. Here we are, writing about our “selves” and there is a hesitation to explore deeper consciousness or personality, or interiority of thoughts. What stops us? Take for example, our reaction to passing a roadside accident. We may be horrified about what we see and at the same time burning with curiosity to see the mangled vehicles and the EMTs prying out a body with the Jaws of Life. Concentrating on that secret desire to watch, to see possibly something horrific, is the challenge for anyone who wants to explore and reflect on one’s personal response in a moment like this – or any moment in time. We bury these thoughts, wishes desires, quickly, and hesitate to return. BUT – sometimes we really want to write about how it felt to be in that situation. How do we go back and dredge up our true feelings?

Carl Klaus speaks about “fixedness” in his book, The Made-up Self.” That resistance to drill deeper through our habitual thoughts down to a less-recognized (or less acceptable) self.

The question is not to dig up and record macabre thoughts, it is how to think deeply on how we respond, what we truly think in any situation.

In her essay Moments of Being, Virginia Woolf speaks about the importance of “scene making” to get at buried thoughts.   She differentiates between private (reflective) thoughts and public approaches to delve into memory. The private are the scenes which we remember but can’t make sense of – the public are the roads we try to build into memory by saying this happened, then this, then this. Scenes are best explored using their sensory aspect:  sight, sound, smell, taste or touch. In the following description she is trying to remember her mother and she starts with her “first memory” of red and purple flowers on a black background” on her mother’s dress. She tries this as a way to uncover memory in her unconscious, and then she moves to sound to delve deeper.

“…hearing the waves breaking, one, two, one, two, and sending a splash of water over the beach; and then breaking, one, two, one, two, behind a yellow blind. It is of hearing the blind draw its little acorn across the floor as the wind blew the blind out.”

Woolf describes that, after the retrieval of sensory images – after the amassing of mental pictures – then the combining of such moments, the reflective process begins to take off. A gesture or touch is restored and ultimately a sense of how one lived/felt in that moment.

We must look back on the images of our past as if they are photographs and describe these scenes specifically. Eventually, the feelings will emerge and we can stay with them because we are continuing to go deeper and deeper simply by saying, “this, and this, and this is what I see. It’s all here – in my picture.” Eventually, the thoughts, the reflections, will follow.