Sensing The Past

Sensing the Past

In “writing autobiography,” bell hooks shares the struggle that she encountered while trying to write an autobiography, and describes how writing it showed her how to look at her past from a different perspective. hooks begins with her failed attempts and evaluates why she believes these attempts were failures. She then goes on to share examples of how she uses her sense of smell, the noises that she hears, and the people around her to recall specific memories of her past. She explains how details from memories can easily become blurred and even sometimes made up, and also says that every person recalls a memory or story differently; therefore its not the details that are important so much as “the spirit of a particular moment” (hooks 33). She concludes by saying how she felt as though she had ‘rescued’ her young self through writing the autobiography. Throughout her essay, hooks connects her recollection of memories directly to her senses. This paired with her overall positive outlook on her experience makes for a well-composed, successful essay.

I agree with hooks that senses have a lot to do with recalling certain memories. I think for me, smell is my most active road to recollection. Everything I smell makes me think of something. These smells can be either passive, where I just take it in and enjoy the memory, or they can make me do something; for me, smelling food on the grill would not only bring back memories of family cookouts, but it would also make me go get something to eat. I believe that my sense of smell is most active because of the way I react to each and every scent differently. I can hear things and yet sometimes they won’t get through to me; I won’t notice them or really even think about them. Smelling something just seems to overpower my other senses. Smells always make me think of something because they are so unique. Even the subtlest scents can bring back very important memories. And while I can’t always explain why these memories pop into my head to certain smells, I know for sure that they do.

I think that sight is the most obvious way to recall a memory, but it is often not the most active. hooks shows this in her writing with both of her two specific incidents that she recalls. In the first incident she was dancing with the young black man that she met. He smelled of cigarettes and alcohol. During this dance she recalled her ‘Uncle Pete’ as a direct relation to the scent of the man she was dancing with. The dancing also reminded her of the long embraces Uncle Pete used to give her. She didn’t recall anything because of the sight of the man or the place they were dancing; it was her sense of smell and touch that made her recall these memories. In her second recollection, she is feeding ducks at a park. She recalls her memory, whether it actually happened or not, because of a train she heard off in the distance. She claims that this was a favorite park of theirs; meaning that they must go there often enough that she would have other memories from it. But the sound that she heard overpowered the memories that she recalled from the sight of the park. In both these two incidents, what may seem like the most obvious thoughts that should pop into her mind just from the very sight of the place are overpowered by her other senses, and the memories that they bring back.


I also agree with another point that hooks makes in this essay about how the details of a story may differ from person to person. hooks follows this up by saying that the difference in these details do not matter. While reading an autobiography, I don’t pay attention to and scrutinize every little detail. I read more for the overall meaning and effect that each anecdote has on the writer, and why these stories are important in his/her life. Therefore hooks is right in not writing for accuracy of detail but writing to evoke the state of mind of each moment (33). For example if I were to write an autobiography about myself, I might include my family vacation to Las Vegas. While telling this story, I think that it is not important as much which casinos we went to, but much more important how I felt while I was in and around the casinos. To me saying that we visited the Wynn Hotel and Casino, which is arguably the most luxurious casino on the Strip, is not nearly are effective as saying that just by walking in those doors, I felt like a high roller. I gained confidence in myself because I was being seen in that environment, near all those expensive and luxurious stores, with all those other rich people. The latter statement I feel gives the reader the effect that being in this casino really meant something to the writer, and changed him or her in some way.

I think that hooks’ overall positive outlook of her experience seems to give me (the reader) a sense of satisfaction. It seems that although she went through this struggle that lasted years upon years, she is glad that it happened. Because although this struggle lasted so many years during which she could hardly write anything of substance, she is happy to have figured out how to overcome her writer’s block and write a successful autobiography. She learned how to use all of her senses to recall all the memories and stories that would give her something to write about again. And through her writing she has taken a whole new outlook on her past, and has put the pieces of her heart back together. It is in the last paragraph where it becomes apparent that she is finally fulfilled. hooks wraps up her writing by saying, “In the end I did not feel as though I had killed the Gloria of my childhood. Instead I had rescued her. She was no longer the enemy within…” (35). This final conclusion of her struggle is where she shows her change in heart, and embraces her past. So not only do I think this struggle has helped her become a better writer, but it has also helped her to love and understand her past better.

Overall, I think that bell hooks has done a wonderful job portraying how much of a struggle she had in writing the autobiography, and how her senses and the way she wrote her memories helped her to overcome this struggle in order to write a meaningful autobiography. When all of these memories pieced together, they completely changed the way she looked at her childhood life as Gloria Jean. I think this also shows how little effect one simple memory can have, but when pieced together with other memories and stories, they can have a great affect on both the reader and the writer. But it was her angle of vision of this struggle that really caused her change of heart. With her positive angle of vision, she is able to learn from this multi-year struggle, and use it not only to improve her writing, but also her life in general.

Works Cited

hooks, bell. “writing autobiography.” Essays on Writing. Eds. Lizbeth A. Bryant and Heather M. Clark. New York: Longman, 2009. 29-35. Print.

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