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You are here: Home > Writing in Education > Writing at University > Writing in Practice > Previous Issues > Vol. 3 > Reclaiming the Past: Exploring the Role of Primary Sources in Creative Writing Research
Reclaiming the Past: Exploring the Role of Primary Sources in Creative Writing Research
Author: Sam Meekings
Sam Meekings examines the use of primary sources in the construction of nonfiction narratives, particularly memoir, analyzes notions of “accuracy” in memoir, and invokes Bakhtin’s “heteroglossia”.


This paper will examine the use of primary sources in the construction of nonfiction narratives, paying close attention to memoir. Proceeding from my own authorial research, I will discuss recent arguments in contemporary historiography about the issues that arise in trying to create a “faithful” picture of the past, focusing on the theories of Mintz and Tosh. This will lead to a discussion of the conflict inherent in the construction of an “accurate” memoir, and will examine the authorial anxieties that need to be addressed in terms of remembering, reassembling and reclaiming the past. It will also discuss ways in which research can suggest structural models for the author, in particular where a narrative might be planned and researched in terms of theme and motif, through an analysis of the memoir of Jonathan Taylor. Finally, it will move from this thematic principle to an analysis of how research through primary and secondary sources aids the construction of what Bakhtin terms “heteroglossia”, a series of overlapping codes and discourses within a text, leading to a narrative that might function on a number of different levels.


Keywords: memoir, research, primary sources, history, nonfiction, narrative, life writing, memory


Towards the end of December 2013, I began researching the legend of the phoenix for my memoir. I was writing specifically about the year my younger brother suddenly died (2008), at the age of twenty-four, and I had come to believe that the myth of a creature able to rise again from the ashes would provide the ideal metaphorical counterpoint for my memories of scattering my brother’s ashes at Hesworth Common. I hoped that this trope would provide a clear parallel between the reality of the situation, namely the family gathered upon the hillside with a full urn and plastic cups to share a last toast, and what Joan Didion (2007) has termed the “magical thinking” of grief, most clearly in the form of impossible hopes and fantasies that we would somehow see my brother again. The inclusion of the mythical story would, I hoped, allow me to show the dialectical movement that is typical of a mind dealing with sudden and unexpected loss; a mind that is always ricocheting back and forth between the difficult present, the idealized past, and the now-impossible future. 

Therefore, I began to look for primary sources about this mythical creature. The importance of primary and secondary sources for the historical novelist should be obvious. I would contend, however, that they are just as vital for the author of the memoir, or indeed any nonfiction narrative whose action is set primarily in the past. Finding sources that might support or develop authorial memory is, I believe, of key importance. One of the dangers of life writing is that the reader and writer become stuck within a single viewpoint, which might easily become limiting or claustrophobic. Furthermore, this single perspective is particularly open to charges of bias, subjectivity and misremembering. The integration of research within narrative nonfiction allows the author to foreground important questions about memory, legitimacy, and accuracy. However, a careful examination of such sources raises questions and concerns that must be considered by any creative writing practitioner or instructor.

Regarding the issues that might arise from the use of primary sources, consider the complications of writing about the phoenix. During my search for the earliest accounts of this legendary beast, I was soon led to the Aberdeen Bestiary, an illustrated English manuscript dating back to the twelfth century. As a historical novelist with an undergraduate degree in history, I had instinctively sought out a “primary source”, that is, a document that I naïvely supposed would be free from the bias, mediation and selective interpretation of later ages.

As the historian Steven Mintz (2003: 41) suggests, “Nothing brings the past back to life quite like primary sources. Letters, diaries, trial transcripts, and other original documents allow us to hear the living voices of the past.” In principle, this ought to be self-evident. By reading a book created in the twelfth century, as opposed to a contemporary interpretation of twelfth century beliefs, I believed I should be able to see directly the ideas and views of people who lived at the time. It is integral to a historical novel set in Elizabethan England to have accurate information regarding the food that would have been eaten by the nobles at banquets, for instance, and it is equally integral to a work of nonfiction set in Britain in 1984 (the year my brother was born) to successfully summon the music, fashion, cuisine and leading headlines of that year. Yet I soon found that this is in fact a simplification, for each source brings with it is own problems. As I started to read more of the contemporary literature around life writing and narrative nonfiction, I quickly discovered that primary sources invariably have their own ambiguities and inherent difficulties. The Aberdeen Bestiary provides a clear example of this.

For my research in 2013 I turned to the online digitization of the original medieval manuscript that was created, edited and maintained by the Department of Special Collections and Archives at King’s College, University of Aberdeen. This project was begun in 1997, and was not without its own difficulties; its editors write that the “complex nature of the challenge resided in the facts that we were to digitize a book in vellum… some 800 years old, that there were legitimate concerns over the vulnerability of the original… and that it was not particularly intelligible other than to a limited number of specialists” (Beavan et al. 1997: 62). Setting aside the physical constraints and limitations of the text, the issue of intelligibility is crucial: in digitization, the Latin work had not only to be translated but also, as a logical corollary of this, interpreted by specialists. The account I read of the phoenix, then, was hardly “primary” in the traditional conception: it was one mediated and filtered by modern scholars. In much the same way one of the biggest challenges I faced with my own “primary sources”, such as my own diaries and memories (as well as the recollections of family, acquaintances and neighbours that I gathered through copious interviews), was that they were undoubtedly influenced by hindsight. Thus, the re-telling of familiar tales changed in the context of my brother’s funeral and all that had led up to it. John Tosh (1990: 214) suggests that, for this reason, the very idea of an unmediated voice from the past is impossible: “Whatever the evidence it rests on, the notion of a direct encounter with the past is an illusion, but perhaps nowhere more than in the case of testimony from hindsight. The ‘voice of the past’ is inescapably the voice of the present too.” Any researcher must be aware of the fact that the presence of primary sources alone is no guarantee of creating an accurate or fair representation of the past. Indeed, a primary source can frequently be both original and biased.

The practitioner must, then, be open to this tension; indeed, it is even possible to make this tension a function of the work. By drawing attention to the doubt and uncertainty concerning the veracity of events, the writer might demonstrate how the way we “read” the world is similar to the way we read a text: namely, by colouring it with our own individual psychological makeup and thus changing its very meaning. In my own memoir, I chose to highlight this uncertainty by describing the changes enacted on seemingly benign everyday objects. I decided to show how each object I describe and depict in my work had its original meaning renegotiated by how I approached it in the aftermath of my brother’s death. Items such as leftover bottles of mouthwash, old toys, faded photographs, teddy bears, cat combs, and so on, all gained potency strictly according to how they stood in relation to my brother: how many games he had won with that hockey stick, how many fearsome tricks he had played with those toys, how many hours he spent labouring over one of his drawings. In this way, the subjectivity of any primary source might be used not to limit the text, but rather to make explicit the unique and irreplaceable nature of memory and personal experience.

The issue of how any source is affected by its immediate context and subsequent history is, for the practitioner, also a question of how much information to include and how much to leave out. This is a question the author must resolve in defining the limits of his or her research. For myself, I decided to focus solely on those aspects that shed some light on either: a) my brother’s character or ideas and beliefs (however contradictory these may often have been); or b) my own relationship with my brother (including after his death during the summer of his funeral). In the same way that a researcher must begin by formulating a methodology that defines the parameters of their research, so writers might benefit from identifying the scope of their own projects.

How, then, might the practitioner deal with this problem of “accurate” representation? One option is to acknowledge the dangers and unreliability of memory within the narrative. A model here is instructive. (Indeed, it should go without saying that for the practitioner, as for the instructor, one of the primary acts of research must be to focus upon “the literature”; namely, those previous works done in roughly the same field within which the writer is now working.) Jonathan Taylor’s Take Me Home (2007) is a memoir that demonstrates how this anxiety over memory-as-research affects the process of telling a story. It is a text concerned with remembering, reassembling and reclaiming the life of a recently-deceased family member, and Taylor writes that “In remembering my father, I can’t help also remembering things which aren’t him, which are inadequate substitutes for the real person. I can’t help remembering books, records, films, which have survived him, and now stand in his place” (113). Taylor fears that the act of writing and remembering may be an act of inadequate replacement, and very often works by focusing on texts or cultural fragments associated with the bereaved. In Taylor’s case, these include Shakespeare, Stravinsky, Blackadder and Disney, but for Taylor “none of these works quite work. None of the texts…manage to understand him entirely. They don’t even understand my understanding of him” (125). Cultural substitutes fail, since primary sources can only provide a simulacra of the past, rather than conjure it fully back to life.

It is not only culture that is a poor substitute for an understanding of a person, but memory itself, the parent of most primary sources. We do not remember original events so much as recall the last time we remembered them. We remember a memory of a memory. Furthermore, each memory is influenced by the way in which we remember. This was a central problem I faced when I set about writing my memoir. My focus on the past meant that although I could fact-check much of the material by interviewing witnesses (family, friends, classmates, neighbours, acquaintances, etc.), much of the narrative had to rely upon the veracity of my own reminiscences. I was particularly struck by this problem when writing about a holiday we took to the Isle of Wight when I was nine and my brother was seven.

Every evening of those holidays, once we had returned from dinner in a nearby pub or seaside café, my brother and I would enter our section of the tent and set our sleeping bags side by side. This would allow us to whisper for a while about what we imagined we might do the next day, though more often than not we would have forgotten all our plans and ideas by morning. One night we concocted a plan to walk around the entire island and measure its size in the number of footsteps the journey took. Another night my brother devised a plan to construct a raft from driftwood and twigs so that the two of us could sail back home in order to jump out and scare our parents when they returned. I recall him, on yet another evening, wondering aloud whether, after the sun went down, all the fish finally made their way out of the ocean, dried themselves down with special towels and found somewhere warm to sleep.

Or at least, all this is how I now remember the Isle of Wight. It is possible I might be confusing one of these early holidays with another – such as when we were camping on the Cornish coast or even across the channel in France. Each time we went on holiday my brother and I would invariably end up sharing a small partition of a tent on a campsite so close to the sea that we would often hear the gulls calling in the thick of night. Can we have had such conversations when we were so young? Are these really the thoughts of a child? Or am I putting words into my brother’s mouth, making him more articulate than he can possibly have been? Can I really remember the evenings of a single week more than two decades ago? The more I try to look back, the more it seems that much of my childhood is veiled in the thickest mist. The closer I try to examine my own past, the more I come to doubt.

It has long been acknowledged that it is possible to implant false memories by suggestion and repetition, to be persuaded that we have experienced something that never happened, to recall in the most vivid detail events which never took place. Memory is riddled with holes, and we plug them with anything we can find. As if to illustrate the point, I find myself thinking of the time when, on a similar holiday to a campsite on the Irish coast, my brother and I leaped from a jetty into the freezing sea one rain-filled afternoon. Whenever anyone refers to that day I always nod and share in the recollection; indeed, as soon as the story is mentioned, I am transported back to the moment just before I jumped. I can picture the foamy waves around the jetty daring me to turn back, and can still smell the salt and seaweed scent of the ocean. Yet although I can still recall how the sudden immersion in the icy water squeezed the breath from my lungs and spread goosebumps over my skin, how the cold almost winded me, and how I shivered and shook even after I was wrapped up in a warm towel afterwards, I cannot be sure whether the memory is really mine. The details are generic and somehow not quite real, as though I am remembering a fragment of a dream I had many years ago, and I am sometimes struck by the feeling that everything described might as well have happened to someone else. After all, I have heard the anecdote so many times from my parents, and looked at the photo that recorded the jump so often, that my mind may have simply worked hard to fill in the blanks. Memories are as easy to borrow as library books.

If we might borrow memories, then we can also potentially change or destroy them. It should be noted that the act of recording, writing or telling a memory may enact a change on the memory itself. If we do not remember original events so much as recall the last time we remembered them, then a memoir, in some sense, comes to replace the “real” characters described within. As in historical study, the newer memory, or source, may come to usurp the “primary” source. My brother, for instance, dies a second time in and through my writing about him dying. The issue of relying on memory as a primary source might therefore become an issue of replacement. Taylor’s memoir acknowledges this concern, and furthers it by suggesting that the work of a (auto)biography is, in some ways, tied up with the work of creating a memorial: “Where once my father was, in his place stands this book, which like him is full of unanswered questions and phantom John Taylors” (262-263).

We are therefore led back to the beginning of the search for an accurate representation of the past. And in a historical search, each source can often lead back to another. The Aberdeen Bestiary, for instance, takes much of its raw material from the Physiologus, a Greek text written in the second or third century CE, as well as from classical texts by authors such Pliny the Elder, written in the first century CE. In this way, we must add another thousand years to the history of our “primary” source, though it is worth nothing that both the Physiologus and the works of Pliny are collections of stories, myths and beliefs, many of which pre-date Christianity and the start of the Common Era. It is impossible to trace the exact origin of the majority of the tales contained within these texts. In short, the perfect primary source does not exist. In questioning the primacy of memory, we are also led back in endless circles, searching for “what really happened”. This is the unanswered question that Taylor’s work suggests is at the heart of every excavation of the past.

Far from being the most reliable of primary materials, then, memory is clearly a problematic and often untrustworthy source. Taylor’s memoir once again provides a clear example of this, since he explicitly draws the reader’s attention to the limits, gaps and one-sidedness inherent in the project of creating anything “real” from memory alone: “We exist to other people,” he writes, “only as the sum total of the cells devoted to us in their amygdalas, superior temporal sulci, medial-frontal and orbitofrontal cortices – just as they exist to us only in ours. You might open up someone else’s brain and find a miniature version of yourself in there. But then again, you might not recognise the you that’s imprinted on that person’s grey matter” (103).

The problem, then, is that a great deal of primary sources are exclusively subjective, and as such give a single perspective on past events that has the potential to be inconsistent, discordant with and even contradictory to other accounts (not least those either previously read or experienced by the reader). Though it might be suggested that the prudent practitioner ought, therefore, to rely only on primary sources (memory among them) that can be verified by cross-examination and comparison with other sources, the truth is that to do so may rob the writer of some of their most personal, unique and heartfelt material.

Taylor’s memoir suggests a self-reflexive answer to the problem of relying on primary sources, yet there are other paths open to the practitioner that might circumvent some of the issues raised here. Smith and Watson (2010), for instance, suggest that writing from life has always involved borrowing from other genres, and that “what is called ‘autobiography’ is not at this historical moment (and, we would argue, never has been) a unified form, nor is it distinct from literary modes of either fiction or nonfiction. Most autobiographical narratives have…employed diverse kinds of storytelling, and presented disjunctive concepts of subjectivity and agency” (127-8). The practitioner should therefore be made aware of the possibilities of “borrowing” from other forms and genres. Most useful for my own practice was being able to utilize two structuring devices more common to fiction: namely, a quest narrative in which the protagonist pursues understanding, and a slow revealing of information to the reader, in mimicry of the traditional structure of detective fiction. For instance, I chose not to reveal my brother’s cause of death until the 5th chapter, and did not mention his name until the 7th chapter, while holding back the details of his very last day to the very final chapter in order to build suspense (something made difficult by the fact that a memoir dealing with grief has by its nature already revealed its inevitable “twist”).

In many respects, then, the work of the memoirist is comparable to that of a curator, deciding which memories aid the narrative and which might detract, distract, or dilute. Once again, we notice the importance of the practitioner defining the limits of a work before the research process begins. For instance, I made a choice, early on, to focus very strictly only on scenes at which I had been present. Though the memories of others were vitally important (in particular those from my family members and my brother’s friends, whom I interviewed and spoke with during the research stage in order to confirm or add perspective to my own recollections), they served a clear and pre-defined goal within the process. Furthermore, I sought to balance the primary sources of contemporary writing with a range of contextual sources, such as the Aberdeen Bestiary, that might provide a counterpoint to the intimacy provided by focusing only on local and personal sources, and so ensure that the narrative did not become too claustrophobic.

By integrating a diverse range of sources into a narrative, the practitioner might move closer to what Mikhail Bakhtin (1981) terms a “heteroglossia”, the cacophony of overlapping codes and discourses that is human language. In my case this meant focusing on any texts, sources of objects that had played a role in my brother’s life, from his favourite films, West coast Hip Hop, and children’s books about goblins, through to focusing on the etymology of his name and the stories in the Bible featuring his namesake, St Luke. The mixture of different forms of discourse and genre markers is intended to suggest that “real life” and character cannot be easily pinned down and constrained within one “type” or genre. To put this another way, and to echo Whitman, people contain multitudes, and the practitioner might thus utilize this realization to create a more rounded portrait of a character (by including the contradictions, doubts, mistakes and uncertainties that arise both in their own “primary source” memories and in external sources) which might then better avoid the sterility of cliché and stereotype. The integration of a variety of sources into a memoir or nonfiction narrative can also foster the sense of being led in unpredictable directions, and allow the author to eschew a strictly linear progression in favour of allowing the narrative to be led by various coincidences of place, time, memory and association. Edwin Muir, in his seminal work, An Autobiography (1954), writes “It is clear that no autobiography can begin with a man’s birth, that we extend far beyond any boundary line that we set for ourselves” (39). The use of a variety of sources (others’ perspectives, local history, accounts of meals, food, cultural markers, preferences, habits) might then suggest a way of demonstrating the transcendence of such limits within a narrative.

Moreover, Bakhtin argues that we speak with many voices, which means we are made up of voices that are not (only) our own; language operates, he argues, on “the borderline between oneself and the other… the word does not exist in a neutral and impersonal language (it is not, after all, out of the dictionary that the speaker gets his words!), but rather it exists in other people’s mouths, in other people’s contexts, serving other people’s intentions” (293-4). A portrait of the “real” past must then encompass not only memories but also their sources or intertexts. It is instructive to return to Edwin Muir again, and his dictat that “no autobiography can confine itself to conscious life… In themselves our conscious lives may not be particularly interesting. But what we are not and can never be, our fable, seems to me inconceivably interesting” (39). One of the roles of the memoirist, therefore, is to construct a fable through the many subtexts and intertexts of a life. One of the key ways this fable might be constructed is through a balance of both primary and secondary sources.

In conclusion, a consideration of the problems and challenges inherent in primary sources can prove most helpful to the writer attempting to create an accurate portrait of the past. Whether working on memoir, historical fiction or life writing, the practitioner can gain much ground by responding to the tensions that can arise from consideration and use of memory-based sources to promote “accuracy” and “fidelity”. I believe it might be useful, therefore, to attempt to align the practice and process of creative writers with that of other researchers. The practitioner might begin by surveying the literature, namely by identifying and familiarizing themselves with current and past works in the same genre in order to analyze how other authors have approached similar narratives. This not only assists the writer in understanding how to make their own work unique and non-derivative in a crowded marketplace, but may also lead to an understanding of how other writers deal with similar conceptual, thematic and structural issues. The practitioner should also consider defining their own methodology at the beginning of a project, in order to clearly understand the scope of their undertaking, and to plan the necessary research methods. Finally, throughout the process of gathering sources, the practitioner must analyze the reliability, limits and problems of their findings, just as any scholar or researcher would. These strategies should support writers in responding to the issues covered in this paper that are integral to the project of representing, reframing and reclaiming the past.



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Waugh, P. (1984) Metafiction: the Theory and Practice of Self-conscious Fiction. London: Methuen & Co.


Sam Meekings is currently Lecturer in Writing & Rhetoric at Qatar University. He holds a PhD in Creative Writing from Lancaster University. He is the author of Under Fishbone Clouds (called “a poetic evocation of the country and its people” by the New York Times) and The Book of Crows. He has taught writing at NYU (Global Campus), and the University of Chichester in the UK. He was awarded an Authors Foundation Award from the Society of Authors in 2015 for his current work in progress.