5 Tips for Retrieving Memories

The following is an article by Lisa Hase-Jackson originally titled “Five Tips for Retrieving Memories and Developing Your Memoir” and published in the July 2012 issue of SouthWest Sage.

footsteps 02Writing memoir is the ultimate in “writing what you know.” No one else has as much knowledge or authority on the memoirist’s life than the memoirist herself, and certainly no one else can fully understand or appreciate the complex nature of that life better. But along with this authority comes the challenge of collecting and effectively cultivating memories to create a comprehensive whole.

But memories are intangible and fickle, not to mention ephemeral. Ask someone about what they were doing on a specific date in their past and, unless that date coincides with a significant historical event or personal episode, they will likely draw a blank. But ask a person to recall the time they learned to ride a bike or to discuss their experiences with panhandlers, and suddenly they have memories to spare. Memories may also be triggered unexpectedly by events or conditions in the environment. Consider the moment when a childhood memory becomes suddenly clear while sitting among children at the playground. Or the way a scene in a book causes a similar scene from life to flash before your eyes.

Given the fleeting, transient, and unpredictable nature of memories, how exactly should a memoirist go about capturing them? While carrying a notebook is an important activity for all writers, even diligent writers will find it challenging, if not impossible, to jot down every meaningful moment and detail of her past while still leading a normal life. Fortunately, there are other approaches.

Because memories are encoded in specific ways, certain techniques can be employed to deliberately trigger them, thus giving the writer access to a wealth of material from which to develop her memoirs. Immersion, long recognized as a highly effective way to learn new concepts, is a technique that also works for retrieving memories. And while it is impossible to become literally immersed in the past — that is, one cannot go back and relive Woodstock — a kind of semi-immersion can trigger memories that may otherwise elude the writer. Below is a list of five semi-immersion techniques that have worked for many memoirists:

Revisit locations: Since environment is encoded along with material learned, physically revisiting a location of a past experience can trigger vivid memories. It’s amazing what small details force their way into consciousness given the right impetus. If physically visiting a place of your past is impossible because it is too distant or no longer exists, try visiting a similar space. For example, if your elementary school was razed, consider visiting your child’s or grandchild’s elementary school, which is probably not too dissimilar from your own. You will be surprised how becoming immersed in the world of a child will bring back childhood memories. Likewise, visiting middle schools, high schools, and colleges can effectively trigger adolescent memories of awkwardness as well as teenage and early adulthood angst. Revisiting these memories and experiencing their accompanying emotions may be difficult, but using them to develop scenes in your memoir will make for good writing, and ultimately, good reading.

Revisit the moment: Some physical spaces just cannot exist outside the moment in which a memory was created. For example, it may be nearly impossible to revisit that restaurant in South Korea, or any place remotely similar, where you celebrated your 30th birthday. With luck, however, you have photos and other mementos of the event which you have collected and preserved in a scrapbook (or shoebox). Take an hour to revisit these mementos and allow your mind to ruminate on the experience. Make notes about the details of these memories as they arise.

Recreate the moment: Memories involving other family members or that are linked with an event that occurred before you were born may require a little research. Consider recruiting the assistance of other family members and asking to peruse photo albums and scrapbooks they compiled. Chances are they will be thrilled to share the fruits of their labor with you. Further, the experience will likely spark lively conversations about the past — conversations that will help fill in details you are not yet aware of or have been unclear about for years. 

Recreate a similar state of mind or mood: One’s physiological state is also encoded with new experiences. For example, a student who drinks coffee every day before class will recall more information on test day if he drinks coffee right before taking the test. Similarly, when a person feels sad about something, it is easier for him to recall, with vivid detail, other times in his life when he felt sad; much easier, in fact, than trying to recall sad memories when happy. There are many ways to affect mood, including listening to music, meditating, exercising, napping, swimming, or ingesting mood-altering substances. And while I do not advocate irresponsible use of mind-altering substances, remembering Woodstock may be easier when drinking a beer late at night and listening to The Who’s Live at Leeds LP than when sitting in front of the computer in the middle of the afternoon drinking tea and willing those memories to come to mind.

Automatic writing: Automatic writing is an excellent way to immerse yourself mentally in your past and produces the best results when done in a slightly altered state, such as first thing in the morning before you’ve had your coffee or very late at night when you’re too tired to think critically. Other examples of altered consciousness are those that occur after strenuous exercise or deep meditation. Like free-writing, automatic writing involves writing down everything you remember about a memory nonstop for a period of ten or twenty minutes.

Remember, the difference between a good memoir and a great one is development. Utilize these easy, fun techniques to add vivid details and realistic scenes to your memoir today.

Lisa M. Hase-Jackson

Lisa M. Hase-Jackson

Lisa M. Hase-Jackson holds a Master’s Degree in English with an emphasis in poetry from Kansas State University and is a trained Creativity Coach. She has over ten years of experience teaching narrative and nonfiction writing, facilitating workshops in a variety of genres, and supporting writers of all backgrounds and skill levels. Visit her blog at ZingaraPoet.net, which features poet interviews, writing exercises, poetry prompts, articles and poetry picks. She also has a website for 200 New Mexico Poems: 100 Poems Celebrating the Past, 100 More for the Future — a dynamic celebration of New Mexico’s centennial through poetry.


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