Make the Most of Your Memory: 10 Tips for Writing About Your Life

Today’s guest post is by Stacey Dubois, a graduate student at Tufts University, as well as an
aspiring children’s/YA novelist. For more on the psychology of the
creative process, visit her blog.

In the
courtroom, witnesses pledge to “tell the truth, the whole truth, and
nothing but the truth.” An admirable goal, but a laughable one to memory
researchers. Unless you’re Jill Price, a woman suffering from the first known case of hyperthymestic syndrome (“total recall”), such a feat is impossible. Why?

is not an impartial recording device. Retrieving a memory is not like
using the playback mode on a video camera, nor is it like opening a
document stored on a hard drive or pulling a file from an organized
cabinet. Rather, recall is a reconstructive process, one that’s
subject to error, bias, and suggestion. This obviously can cause
problems when the accuracy of a memory is of the utmost importance, as
it is when an eyewitness sits upon the stand to testify. But the
fallible nature of the human memory system can be troublesome outside of
the courtroom, as well.  

Enter memoirists. There you sit,
perched on the brink of full disclosure, the story of your fascinating
life taking shape on the blank page before you. Writing memoirs is challenging enough without your memory getting in the way.

memoirs are categorized as nonfiction, you intend to “tell the truth,
the whole truth, and nothing but the truth,” right? But how can you be
sure your words are true (and avoid controversy)? How can you tell the whole truth
of your richly detailed life, when you can’t even remember what you had
for breakfast yesterday? And if you aim to tell “nothing but the
truth,” does that mean you can’t invent a little when certain facts
escape you but are vital to the depth and/or coherence of the story?

both a writer and a cognitive psychologist who studies memory and
metamemory (knowledge of our own memories), and I’ve devised a list of
10 tips to help you make the most of your memory as you write your life

1. Utilize memory triggers.
This one may seem
obvious, but there’s nothing like a good, concrete trigger to get a
memory flowing. Flip through photo albums and yearbooks, watch home
movies, sort through old letters and e-mails you’ve saved, etc. You can
even search for triggers online, including music, pictures, and videos
from the era in question (one YouTube clip of Eureeka’s Castle, and half my childhood comes flooding back).

2. Get in the right mindset.
you ever been told to think about something happy when you’re feeling
blue? The problem with this advice is that the first thoughts and
memories that come to mind often match your mood. In the scientific
literature, “state-dependent” memory effects suggest that memory
performance is typically best when the internal state at encoding
(during the original event) is congruent with the internal state at
retrieval (when you try to remember it later). So, if you’re having a
down day, don’t try writing the chapter about your wedding on a Hawaiian
beach at sunset. Save that section for a day when you wake up on the
right side of the bed.

What if you’re writing about a night
spent at the bar? Here’s a fun tip—have a drink first.
Seriously—undergraduates almost fall out of their chairs when I
recommend that, should they ever happen to study for an exam while
intoxicated, they should take the exam intoxicated, as well. (There’s a
caveat, of course: the best memory performance comes from a sober-sober
match up!)

3. Reinstate the context.
This is essentially the same principle as described above, but applied to the external
context of the memory. Another education-related example: If you attend
lectures in a particular classroom for an entire semester, your test
performance should be better if your final exam is held in the same
classroom, rather than a lecture hall across campus. What does this mean
for memoirists? Revisiting the scenes of certain memories may be
advantageous to your work—the experience will likely uncover details
that would have otherwise remained buried.

4. Take advantage of your memory’s natural organization.
memory is special. It comprises both episodic memory (memory for
events) and semantic memory (general knowledge), but it is unique in
that all of the memories are relevant to YOU. Unlike other systems of
memory, autobiographical memory contributes to the formation of your sense of self. It is not simply a log of your daily activities—the memories form the story of your life. This organization is beneficial to writers, because narrative arc is an essential component of a memoir.

an activity to help you capitalize on this organization: on separate
sheets of blank paper, make a timeline for each “sphere” of your life
(school, work, family, friends, etc). Then, on each timeline, segment
and label the important “periods;” separate these from each other with
defining events—“turning points” such as moves, milestones, deaths, etc.
(these can differ from timeline to timeline). Finally, take notes on
what you remember from each period, staying completely within one sphere
at a time. It’s also a good idea to make your first pass over the
activity chronologically, even if you are not planning to organize your
memoir that way.

5. Pay attention to what’s distinct.
of our memories are hazy, fragmentary, confusing, or seemingly trivial.
Yet there’s something about each one that makes it stick in our minds.
Pay attention to the most distinctive, attention-grabbing elements of
your memories and decide what those details say about you (or that time
in your life), even if the memory itself is difficult to understand/work
with. You might find that the idiosyncrasies of what you remember are
useful illustrations of your personal quirks.

6.  Leave out memories from the childhood amnesia period.
more accurately—don’t describe events from that period as if you
remember them firsthand. The consensus among researchers is that our
first explicit memories are not consolidated until the second or third
year of life; so, even if you think you remember lying in your crib as a
6-month-old child, watching your mobile spin round, you shouldn’t
include this in your memoir, because it will detract from your

7. Be a critical thinker.
overconfident in our memories. Period. Question yourself as you write:
is what you’re saying plausible? Does it align with things you know for
sure—facts about where you lived, who you knew, and what your day-to-day
routine was like at the time? When in doubt, discuss the memory with
friends and family members who were there. If no one can agree on what
“really” happened, well … you’re the author, so you can decide what
version to tell. My advice: note that there are competing (yet equally
plausible) accounts, but then describe the event as you personally
remember it (because it is, after all, your story).

8. Use your senses.
Remembering isn’t like looking at a static photograph, or even watching a video clip. Often, remembering is reliving—it’s
a moving, breathing, sensory experience. The richness of such details
is not only useful for distinguishing true memories from “false”
memories or dreams, but also for connecting with your audience. Invite
your readers into your experiences by including sensory details in your
memoir. This is good practice with any type of creative writing, but
memoirs are special because the perspective is uniquely yours—one grounded in flesh and blood, rather than the imagined world of a character.

9. It’s never too late to start keeping a journal.
writing and revision process can last months or years—and who says that
nothing interesting will happen to you during that period? Make things
easier on your future self by writing down all the details of important
events now, in case you want to include them in your memoir later.  

10. Strive for truth, but accept honesty.
cryptic, huh? Here’s what I mean: No one cares if Chuckles was really
the name of the clown whose presence traumatized you at your fifth
birthday party. Chuckles, Giggles, Lollipop, Snorkel—whatever name you
use, it doesn’t change the integrity of your story, and that’s the
important thing. This can hold for elements less trivial than names—such
as date, location, dialogue, etc. Just make sure to tell your audience
when you’ve knowingly entered the realm of speculation if the details
and facts in question are central to the narrative arc.

We’ve all experienced the pitfalls of our memories, so your readers will understand that no memoirist can tell their story exactly as it happened. There is an element of fiction to every memoir, but, even if an objective “truth” is impossible,
the important thing is that you give your memory a good workout during
the writing process and make authenticity your ultimate goal.

An honest memoir is an unforgettable memoir.

My thanks to Stacey for such a thoughtful post on memory and memoir. Be sure to visit her blog for more on the psychology of the
creative process.

Also, this week on Thursday, I’ll be a guest on a monthly roundtable call hosted by the National Association of Memoir Writers. Go here for more info.

Photo credit: komehachi888

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5 thoughts on “Make the Most of Your Memory: 10 Tips for Writing About Your Life

  1. Helene Bergren

    What an excellent post full of good tips, with solid backup information and explanations. It’s fun and interesting to hear from someone who is passionate about two topics I love, writing and psychology.

    I’ve been journaling for several years now, and have discovered looking back that it’s easy to leave out details because at the moment it’s so profound you can’t imagine forgetting the nuances of a situation, place or person I’ve met.

    And when it comes to touching on hard topics, I prefer openness and authenticity, and know that glossing over issues is not a solution.I also respect others and want to extend some grace. So sometimes I refer to issues as a situation with so-and-so, with some other hints.
    That said, I do highly recommend journaling for writing practice and mental processing, and the contents of a journal truly do serve as good memory triggers later.

    I just experienced this preparing to speak about and preview a book called "Emotionally Healthy Spirituality" that I had read. My journal entries about the book were quite useful in my presentation prep work.

    Thanks for the post!

  2. Linda Joy Myers

    I had an experience with contextual memory. A few decades ago, before my childhood was processed through therapy and writing, I visited my home town. As I drove toward it, the landscape of red dirt and wheat triggered waves of deep recognition in my body. Then, as I approached the town, the wheat mills, the familiar layout of the streets, and the Great Plains wind kicked up movies in my head. On and on this went, bits of memory, details of grade school, friends’ faces loomed before me. Music, bits of dialogue that people had said 15 years earlier floated by. It was strange, as if my cells had been stamped with these memories. I learned later as a writer to visit the places of memory, and while I was there, to write and write as fast as I could. We need to be unleashed in the first draft.
    Thank you for the post! I’ll be following her blog in the future. And,I’m looking forward to our NAMW roundtable on Sept. 2!
    –Linda Joy

  3. Alex Wilson

    When I was about 50 — I’m 72 now — I realized that the family history ended with me unless I wrote some of it down. I am an only child and my grandparents and parents died early. My raison d’etre was to pass on information to the four grandchildren who, at the time, were infants. It was a chathartic experience and I recommend it to anyone unless they had a traumatic childhood better left unremembered.