"A particular sensory experience can cross into other senses" Imagination and Reality with Molly Howes

Though Muse and the Marketplace 2020 was sadly cancelled, we still want to share blog posts that presenters wrote about our theme “Imagination and Reality.” In this blog series we asked presenters to explore the boundaries between fact and imagination, and how each contributes to great writing. Here, authors have selected a passage from their own work, highlighting in green which elements came roughly from their direct experience, memory, or fact; while highlighting in blue which elements came from their imagination or speculation. In this post, Molly Howes shares an excerpt from her unpublished memoir, "The Temporary Orphan: A Tale of Invisible Wounds and Unexpected Grace."



Hadn’t we had autumn in [Freeport]? Or in Tulsa? For that matter, hadn’t fall brought its paintbrush last year and the year before? But that autumn, as our mother ended her migration at the southernmost point of our country – to which we would soon be dispatched – the northern trees’ colors sang to me. In crystal daylight or when gray clouds agitated the sky, oranges and yellows and reds reverberated inside me, like sound waves. They projected themselves onto the upside-down screens in my brain, but I felt the hues as if they whispered directly in my ears and rattled my chest with rousing harmonies. Light and color inhabited me. In a letter to my mother, I tried to describe the cross-sensory vividness.

Was the music of color so powerful because it was something I believed I’d soon lose, a sweet ache of impending loss, as opposed to the sudden, unanticipated losses I’d encountered? This once, I knew ahead of time we would lose something valuable.

Later, when we lived in Florida, Gram sent perfect maple leaves pressed between waxed paper sheets. I wouldn’t have treasured them, wouldn’t have held them up to the window, wouldn’t have listened to them, if I hadn’t felt this final fall in the north so acutely. 

[End of excerpt.]



I chose this passage from my childhood memoir because it lends itself to exploring this question of reality vs. imagination for a few reasons:

First, the language is more flowery and metaphorical than my customary style and seems inherently more imaginative. 

Second, in this passage I tried to capture the way emotions (longing and impending loss) “color” immediate reality, both enhancing the senses and highlighting common moments as if they are unique. 

Third, I’m fascinated by the way a particular sensory experience can cross into other senses, complicating and enriching what we see, hear, and feel. On the one hand, those experiences are “real,” but they also decidedly carry us into an imaginative realm. I didn’t really think the trees’ colors were singing to me, for example. (I wrote, “reverberated inside me, like sound waves,” and “as if they whispered directly in my ears.”) Nonetheless, the doubling up of sensory modalities intensifies them in the moment and the memory, as well as in the telling.  


Molly Howes is a graduate of both the first Memoir Incubator and the only Nonfiction Career Lab, two of GrubStreet’s yearlong, intensive programs.
Her work has appeared in
The New York Times “Modern Love” column, Boston Globe Magazine, WBUR “Cognoscenti” column, NPR Morning Edition, Bellingham Review, The Tampa Review, Pangyrus, Passages North, the Brevity blog and other publications. In addition to earning a Notable Essay listing in Best American Essays 2015, she is the grateful recipient of fellowships from the Ragdale Foundation, VCCA and the MacDowell Colony.
Her upcoming nonfiction book,
A Good Apology: Four Steps to Make Things Right, is a thoughtful examination of making amends. She teaches why it’s so hard to make a good apology, why it's so important to do it anyway, and how to heal relationships by making wrongs right. A Good Apology will be released by Grand Central Publishing in June, 2020.
She completed a memoir called "The Temporary Orphan: A Tale of Invisible Wounds and Unexpected Grace", which is as yet unpublished.
In addition to her writing life, Molly Howes has practiced as a clinical psychologist in the Boston area for decades. She’s personally dedicated to working for greater racial justice. For more, go to www.mollyhowes.com

About the Author See other articles by Molly Howes
by Molly Howes

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