Friday, July 31, 2015

The Part Impressions Play in Writing and Life: 11 Thoughts

July walk 2015
"Impression (n.)--1. an effect produced on a person; 2. an effect produced by any operation or activity; 3. an idea or notion; 4. something made by pressure such as a mark, stamp, or print; 5. the act of impressing; 6. the state of being impressed."

I did not realize there were so many shades to the meaning of the word impression until I consulted a dictionary. I simply thought of impressions as those memories of childhood printed on the brain--like these black-eyed susans I came upon while on my walk. They brought back to mind the field next to my childhood home--how they filled the lot on the north side of the house, hovered over by red-winged blackbirds. Mom's bachelor buttons were there somewhere, too. I remember them as being one of Mom's favorite flowers to plant.

in the park 2015
Other impressions came during a recent visit with Mom, now in a nursing home after suffering a stroke that left her with aphasia. Unable to communicate like before, she works hard at recalling stories. We sat on this park bench where she tried to tell me about an apartment she and Dad lived in when first married, 1946--how they had to share the facilities with other renters and how the kitchen left much to be desired. Though she struggled to express herself, it was obvious the place left quite the impression on her even after almost 70 years.

on the lake 2015
We also visited college friends up in northern Ohio, great hosts, always ready to show us a good time. We roasted marshmallows, visited museums, puttered around the lake in their boat. But what kept the conversation and laughter going were the "remember whens" and "whatever happened to" impressions of those days of our youth. If you could have been a fly on the wall (or maybe one of the mosquitoes around the campfire the first night)...!

an impression of original blue coat
Then there was the email I got a few weeks ago--a message from a childhood playmate I only knew in first and second grade. Somehow he found me. His email said, "Are you the same person in whose blue coat pocket we put what turned out to be a live coal from the campfire, subsequently burning a hole in the pocket?" I responded, "Oh, my, this is too funny. Yes, you have the right person--who else would remember that blue coat, one which, by the way, I hated. Mom bought matching coats for my sister and me, and since I was the younger one, I got her hand-me-down. I wore a version of that coat for years!" Can you believe it--sixty years later and here we are. We are still exchanging memories, one impression triggering another. It's been a lot of fun.

All this led me to ask the question, if impressions play such a huge part in our lives, what role do they play in our writing? What gems of wisdom can help steer us down this road? A sampling of what I found:

1. The Query. "Above all, a query letter is a sales pitch and it is the single most important page an unpublished writer will ever write. It's the first impression and will either open the door or close it. It's that important, so don't mess it up. Mine took 17 drafts and two weeks to write." --Nicholas Sparks

2. Story Endings. "How a piece ends is very important to me. It's the last chance to leave an impression with the reader, the last shot at 'nailing' it. I love to write ending lines; usually, I know them first and write toward them, but if I knew how they came to me, I wouldn't tell." --S.E. Hinton

3. Influential Books. "Name the book that made the biggest impression on you. I bet you read it before you hit puberty. In the time I've got left, I intend to write artistic books--for kids--because they're still open to new ideas." --Gary Paulsen

4. Place. "A place makes a deep impression on you when you're young. It's like your childhood. It fertilizes the imagination." --Richard Eyre

5. Language. "I grew up in a house where language was appreciated and cared about. I'm sure that, although I wasn't aware of it at the time, it must have made an impression on me." --Marian Seldes

6. Inspiration. "The moment of inspiration can come from memory, or language, or the imagination, or experience--anything that makes an impression forcibly enough for language to form." -Carol Ann Duffy

7. Names. "A name, of course, is like a piece of clothing, isn't it? It gives you an impression right away." --James Salter

8. Relationships. "I grew up with an incredibly loving and supporting family that gave me the impression there were a lot of options for me out there." --Esperanza Spalding

9. Note-Taking. "I started to write things down, as a very young child, wanting to find a way to remember--to keep close somehow--moments that made an impression on me. --Anne Michaels

10. Grammar. "Your grammar is a reflection of your image. Good or bad, you have made an impression. And like all impressions, you are in total control." --Jeffrey Gitomer

11. Childhood Memories. "Memory in youth is active and easily impressible; in old age it is comparatively callous to new impressions, but still retains vividly those of earlier years."--Charlotte Bronte

Impressions. They play a huge part in our lives which in turn play a part in our writing. What are some of your strongest childhood impressions? And how have they surfaced in your writing?

p.s. What about "first impressions"? Do you remember the story of Susan Boyle's first audition in Britain's Got Talent 2009? Watch it here for a refresher course in being careful not to form opinions based on those first impressions!


  1. I agree that first impressions count, but sadly for me I started querying for my earlier manuscript when neither the story nor the query letter were ready. I hope to make a better second impression :)

  2. Rachna, this writing business does seem to be a continuing learning curve, doesn't it? Good luck on the second round! Thanks for stopping by :-)

  3. There is a wonderful picture book called WILFRED GORDON MACDONALD PARTRIDGE by Mem Box. It's about a child who helps an old lady recover her memory by sharing various artifacts with her. We play a game with that book in drama class, realizing how simple familiar objects help us recall stories from our pasts. I think all that finds its way into our writing, too. Maybe that's why we're always told to "write what you know."

  4. Thank you so much, Peggy--I'm putting this picture book on my list of must-haves! What an interesting game for a drama class, too--and something maybe families should do more of around the table? I know I have a number of favorite items that trigger special memories. Maybe they, too, will find their way in my writing? Hmmmm...