Memoir Writing: 12 Tips To Know To Super Charge Your Memory
When writing a memoir for a client, I’m sometimes amazed at the clarity of their memories.
Last week, I interviewed an 85-year-old grandfather who recalled precise details of the furniture, colour scheme, sounds and smells of his childhood home in Broken Hill.
He even remembered the titles of the ‘78’ records his father played on the gramophone every Sunday morning in their lounge room after Sunday Mass.
But most of us struggle to remember with the same lucidness. I know I do.
We store all memories with a sensory component—sights, sounds, smells, taste and feel.
Evoking sensory memories leads to vivid details in your memoir unique to you. Memories are patterned by images, symbols and metaphors, and if you enter your story via sensory memory, you stimulate the creative right side of your brain.
In my memoir writing workshops, I share several tips to help you recall sensory details that you need to know.
But, before I share these tips on how to write a memoir, let’s first explain what a memoir is:
What Is A Memoir?
A memoir is a non-fictional piece of writing, which is written from your account. It will tell the readers about stories in your life and how they shaped you growing up.
They should also include intimate details above love, loss, happiness and anything else you can muster up.
Memoir writers will often play with their memories and spin them into real-life events.
Remembering your past can be challenging; I still struggle to remember what I ate for breakfast yesterday.
But, using the techniques I share at my memoir writing workshops, you’ll be able to recall details you could never have imagined.
What’s The Difference Between An Autobiography And A Memoir?
In the simplest way possible. An autobiography is the compelling story of your life, from start to finish and everything in between.
Memoir writers will tend to focus on one theme that shaped your entire life.
Unless you’re famous, it’s unlikely anyone other than you’re friends and loved ones will read it.
The thing is, who cares? Writing them can bring you so much joy and can actually be very therapeutic. The motives for writing memoir are different between people, so, have a think about why you want to write a memoir.
A good memoir should be themed to the people that are going to read it. Try to draw on anecdotes from your entire life and how it got you to where you are now.
Before we show you how to start remembering past details, I think it would be helpful to explain the types of memories and retrieval methods out there:
Types Of Memories
After heavy researching for tips to help my clients write their memoirs with greater detail, I found we have different types of memories.
Understanding memory types can help you understand how your memory works and how you can trigger retrieval all this will help you write a memoir:
Implicit And Explicit Memory
An implicit memory comes from a feeling you shouldn’t do something. So is recalling and ability that you learnt previously.
Explicit memory can be split into two parts, but basically, it’s the ability to remember things like your name, age, family relationships and so on.
This is a part of your long term memory and is responsible for remembering how you do things.
The most common examples of procedural memory are the ability to read and write, hold a knife and fork, or talking.
This refers to all the memories that are triggered by your senses, like touch and taste. Our brain perceives thousands of pieces of data from or senses. For whatever reason, your brain will usually select a few things of importance to remember and delete the rest.
Sensory memories are usually unleashed when a particular smell or feeling is relieved.
This is another category of long-term memory and involves recalling specific events or situations. This could be memories of your birthday, first kiss, or your first argument.
Short-Term And Working Memory
It seems there is still a lot of research yet to be done. The working memory appears to be triggered by patterns or processes. This could be things like dealing with bulk data and much more.
Short-term memory is more focused on the duration of the memory.
Memory Retrieval Styles
Surprisingly, memory retrieval comes in a few different styles, and it’s essential to understand how they work.
So here they are:
This is the simple process of remembering details without needing any cues to jog your memory. Recall is the act of pulling information from the brain. This could be things like remembering names or the answer to questions.
When your brain is in the recall process, all the neurons related to that memory are activated and start reconstructing the event.
This refers to the process of remembering something by piecing together a memory. Or mind will reconstruct the memory using logical clues. Your mind will then structure it in a way that makes it easier to remember the finer details.
This is the process of identifying information from previous life experiences or reliving the incident again. The best way to explain this is not knowing the location of something until you see it.
This refers to relearning information that wasn’t previously remembered. A lot of people get the feeling of knowing something but not being able to recall it. In this case, they‘ll fall into the relearning category.
12 Tips For Memoir Writing And Recalling Memories
In my experience of helping people write a memoir, I’ve picked up several writing tips you can use to supercharge your memory.
We all know how challenging it can be to reflect on things that happened a few weeks ago, let alone 20+ years ago.
But when you’re armed with the right tools, it suddenly doesn’t feel as tricky to get started. These are tips and tricks memoir writers use to help extract memories from their clients, and now you can use them too:
1. Immerse Yourself In Old Photo Albums
Looking at old picture albums is a fantastic way of jogging your memory. It’s amazing how memories start to flood your brain when you’re shown a visual cue.
Looking at old picture helps us recall what was happening at the time, what the weather was like, and so much more.
If you’re trying to remember the past whip out some old pictures, close your eyes and remember.
2. Sit Back With Some Home Movies
There’s no better way of remembering events that reliving them. Home movies provide an excellent chance of discovering what was happening in that period.
It opens you up to conversations that were happening, peoples mood, and so much more. All of these things are invaluable when it comes to recalling memories.
When you’re struggling to find inspiration for writing a memoir, try watching some old videos. You’ll be surprised how many extra details you can pick up.
3. Read Through Old Journals
Granted the art of keeping a journal is slowly dying, but it’s something that many of us used to do on a regular base.
Reading through yours or your parent’s journals will help you understand how they were feeling at that time or event.
Because you get a better understanding of how you were feeling at the time, it helps you purvey emotions to your readers. And this is what the best memoirs do for you.
4. Collect ‘Memory Joggers’
Close your eyes and immerse yourself in memory joggers such as favourite objects, music from the time you’re writing about, foods you ate, perfumes you wore, memorabilia, clothes, jewellery, books, TV programs and films.
When you look at photos, notice the looks on peoples’ faces, where they stand in relation to each other, what they are wearing, whether they wear hats, gloves or scarves. All these details help bring a person’s distinctive personality to life.
Even smells can whizz back memories of your childhood. Still today, I can’t smell freshly baked bread without remembering the time I first baked bread with my grandmother.
It’s incredible how utilizing memory joggers can change the way you remember the past.
5. Draw Pictures Of Your Childhood Home
Drawing activates the brain and brings back memories, so draw a picture of your childhood home. When you draw the rooms add furniture and the games you played in each room.
Who was with you when you played the games, what could you see and hear? What food did you eat in each room? What colour was the carpet? Did the room have curtains or blinds? Were the windows big or small?
Asking yourself all of these questions will help you identify more of the story.
6. Tap Into Your Sense Of Smell
Tapping into our sense of smell is a powerful way of accessing memories. Aromas take you right back into a scene, so writing the names of fragrances will bring back memories for you.
By remembering the pure smell of her baby’s skin, a mother can recall specific events when her baby was young.
When I try to recall my high school days, I just have to imagine the smell of squashed banana or hot sardine sandwiches in my school bag after Friday’s lunchtime Mass to bring back vivid stories of Friday afternoons in the playground.
7. Recall Textures
The sense of touch is also a critical memory trigger. The soft skin of a baby evokes powerful memories for a mother, as does the way different people hug you.
Or maybe, feeling a specific texture will remind you of your grandma. Memories are very connected with our senses. The more senses you use to your advantage, the easier remembering becomes.
8. Interview Others For Your Memoir
Before you write your memoir, interview your friends, family or colleagues to help you remember what happened at the time you are writing about.
Someone else may have a different memory of an event, and their description may help to jog your own memory.
9. Take Trips To Childhood Haunts
While writing your memoir, take a trip back to your childhood homes, your schools, the place you had your first date and your other favourite places.
Remember the sights, sounds and smells. I can still recall the smell of my primary school classrooms or the gym change room in vivid detail, and it is these sensory memories that bring back memories of my high school days with great clarity.
10. Make A Memory Journal
Here’s the final tip to help write a memoir and make sure you remember the important parts of your life. A mind journal lets you put a timeline to your memories.
The best thing about this technique is, every time you remember something, you can add it to the appropriate timeline.
It’s surprising how remembering one thing from a specific time period can snowball into hundreds of thing.
11. Visit Your Local Library
The library is an excellent source for local information; of course, they won’t be much in there about your family unless they are well known in the area. But it does give you an opportunity to find some extra information.
If anything at all, it will help you remember significant events that happened; this should feed more memories to appear.
12. Pull Memories From Memoir Examples
Have you ever been halfway through a book only to find a passage that relates to real life? It usually brings memories flooding back to you, which makes it a great tool to pick up some additional information.
Reading other people memoirs can help you identify additional memories to add to your memoir. Here are a few memoir examples you should check out:
- Eat, Pray, Love – Elizabeth Gilbert
- A Photographer’s Life – Annie Leibovitz
- The Liars’ Club – Mary Karr
- Teacher Man – Frank McCourt
- Dirty Rocker Boys – Bobbi Brown
Above are some of the best memoirs that will help jog your memory and get your creative juices flowing. There’s a number of people that write memoirs including Thomas Keller, Aaron Sorkin, Misty Copeland, Gordon Ramsay, James Frey, Dan Brown, Neil Gaiman and the list goes on.
Remembering what happened though your life is challenging, no one can deny that. We’ve all lived through so much, and remembering all of it is unlikely.
The thing is if you want to write a memoir, your success relies on your ability to remember the small details.
But, when you use the right strategies, it can be truly amazing what you can remember. What are you waiting for?
If you’re looking for more tips for writing, check out this article on how to start a memoir.
Get in touch today
If you are writing your memoir but struggling to remember precise details, please feel welcome to contact us, and we will help to jog your memory.
What Makes A Great Memoir?
The key to writing an extraordinary memoir lies with the storyteller’s ability to reflect on events as opposed to reporting them.
For a truly excellent memoir, the writer must be able to connect past experiences with their future endeavours. But more importantly, it must reflect on their adventures to give the reader a more in-depth understanding.
How Many Pages Should A Memoir Be?
There isn’t any particular length your memoir should be. That being said, the average memoir ranges from 250 to 400 pages.
But don’t feel too restrained by how many pages your memoir should be. You’ll find that once you start writing the words will begin to flow out.
How Do You Start Writing A Memoir?
The best way to start your memoir is by engaging your audience from the first word, which can feel tricky for some.
Throughout the introduction, you should be trying to instil trust with the reader and make sure they feel your emotions. Make them laugh or make them cry, try opening with a dramatic moment in your life.
Any of these things will increase engagement with the reader.