A few weeks ago, Denis Ledoux of The Memoir Network posted an article on the LinkedIn Memoir Writers Society group that gave some good tips for capturing memories. He’s basically advocating a brain dump, the writing down of snippets of memories as they come. A writer’s notebook would come in handy for this – carry it around with you. I keep a small notebook in my handbag (which comes in handy for all sorts of spontaneous note-taking). After publishing his own collection of autobiographical fiction, Denis began presenting workshops on memoir writing. He and his team work to help others write and publish their memoirs. With his permission, here is his post:
What if I can’t remember?
People who are writing a memoir will sometimes say, “I want to write my stories but I have forgotten so many details. Is there any way I can get them back?”
There is one tool above all others that makes the experience of life writing successful. That tool is the Memory List. No other exercise opens up the process of life writing as quickly and as surely as the thoughtful and thorough compilation of such a List. It’s simple, and as a first step, it’s crucial.
In this article, I will talk about the Memory List (a general term for your list of memories) and the Extended Memory List (its widest, most all-inclusive version). The Core Memory List (the list refined to the ten most important memories) is covered in a separate article.
Your Memory List is always a work in process because the more you remember and jot down, the more you’ll recall. You will return to and rework your list again and again as you write your life stories.
1.) The Extended Memory List consists of short memory notes (three to five words is sufficient) of people, events, relationships, thoughts, feelings, things-anything-from your past. The list is usually random and always uncensored. Each line lists a different memory. When you write a different memory, start a new line. Do not feel compelled to write in full sentences. (In fact, I urge you not to write in full sentences!)
2.) Let the logic of creating a Memory List be internal. Do not force yourself to be chronological (“everything I did when I was sixteen”) or thematic (“my father”), and do not strive for cause-and-effect relationships (“because this happened, that followed…”) unless the memories come that way spontaneously.
3.) Do not censor your memories. As soon as you find yourself thinking something like “Is this really important enough?” you are censoring your memory and compromising your Memory List. Censoring can result in a list that is less comprehensive-and therefore, less useful to you as a lifewriter-than it would be if you allowed yourself to be free-flowing and uncensoring. Let yourself go where your imagination takes you.
4.) A Memory List includes both big items and small ones. Any of the following are “on target” such a list:
- Brother Stan died.
- Green wallpaper-stage coaches and buttes.
- Sister Marie Gertrude fell on stairs.
- My parents divorced.
- Blue Schwinn bicycle.
The list is for you, and you’re the only one for whom it needs to have meaning. No one else will see it unless you share it. Include enough data to make the notes understandable to you at some future time. Don’t fall into the trap of writing something cryptic like “cap.” In a month’s time, you may not remember which “cap,” or whose, you were remembering. But, if you wrote “Bob’s Red Sox cap/1970,” it is likely you will have enough of a cue to recall what you meant.
5.) The Extended Memory List ought to be fairly long. It is not unusual for a writer to spend two or three weeks or even months compiling it. You will find yourself adding to it regularly in the months ahead as more and more memories come to you.
This Extended Memory List will go in your three-ring binder. It will serve as your source of writing inspiration and be a tremendous time saver. Whenever you sit down to write, you won’t need to spend time coming up with a topic. All you have to do is pick an item on the list and write about it. (Write everything you remember about the “blue Schwinn bicycle” you mentioned on your list.) With your Memory List, you need never again have writer’s block. With an extensive list of memories to pick from, you will always have a ready prompt.
What tools do you have to remember life stories?
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Every November, Denis offers “November is Lifewriting Month.” NILM provides writing prompts via e-mail, free tele-classes on memoir-writing techniques and many surprise memoir gifts. Denis is the author of the classic Turning Memories Into Memoirs/ A Handbook for Writing Lifestories. Most recently, he completed his mother’s memoir, We Were Not Spoiled, and his uncle’s memoir, Business Boy to Business Man. Denis is currently working on a book about “writing with passion.” Jumpstart materials are also available for writers wishing to be memoir professionals in their communities.