When writing memoirs for my clients 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 loungeroom after Sunday Mass. But most of us struggle to remember with the same lucidness. I know I do.
All memories are stored with a sensory component—sights, sounds, smells, taste and feel. Evoking sensory memories leads to vivid details in your writing that are 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.
1. Collect memory joggers and meditate on them. Close your eyes and immerse yourself in them. They include photos, videos, diaries, favourite objects, music from the time you’re writing about, foods you ate at the time, 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.
Most of the things we value have stories associated with them. Collect ornaments and objects to evoke memories—they are a helpful way of bringing back specific memories. Who gave you the object or where did you buy or find it, what were you doing at the time, who were you with, or what was the weather like?
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?
Tapping into our sense of smell is a powerful way of accessing memories. Smells take you right back into a scene, so writing the names of smells 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 primary 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.
The sense of touch is also an important memory trigger. The soft skin of a baby evokes strong memories for a mother as does the way different people hug you. Food brings back vivid memories so describe the foods you ate at the time period you are writing about. As well, watching old TV programs or films, reading books and listening to music from the past are powerful ways to bring back memories filled with emotion.
2. Interview your friends, family or colleagues to help you remember what happened at the time you are writing about. Other people may have a different memory of an event and their description may help to jog your own memory.
3. 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 school days with great clarity.
What memory joggers do you use to help bring back vivid memories? Share them in the comments section below: