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

Writing personal essays and memoirs is a great genre for many writers. But how do you make the most of your memory? Here are 10 tips for writing about your life.
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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.

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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?

Memory 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.

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Because 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?

I’m 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 story:

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. 

Have 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.

(Semantics vs. Syntax vs. Pragmatics.)

4. Take advantage of your memory’s natural organization. 

Autobiographical 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.

(Kurt Vonnegut on the shape of stories.)

Here’s 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. 

Some 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.

Or, 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 credibility.

7. Be a critical thinker. 

We’re 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 your—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.

The 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.

That’s 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.

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While writing a book-length personal story can be one of the most rewarding writing endeavors you will ever undertake, it's important to know not only how to write about your personal experiences, but also how to translate and structure them into an unforgettable memoir. The goal of this course is to teach you how to structure your stories, develop your storytelling skills, and give you the tips, techniques, and knowledge to adapt your own life stories into a chronological memoir.

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