Five tips for finding the missing pieces of your memoir
One of my friends is writing a travel memoir about a trip he took more than 20 years ago. He’s shared with me his writing struggles. Some details stand out as clear as if they happened yesterday. He remembers troubles along the way and the kindness of strangers. He can still recall the smell of the coffee and the way the biscuits and apricot jam tasted at a particular restaurant. He remembers the weather he had to struggle through on part of the trip and the jacket he was wearing.
Other parts of the journey are a complete blank.
I asked him a few questions to spark his memory, but ultimately here is what I suggested he do. If you’re struggling with recreating your past, you might want to try these tips too.
Write. Don’t think or talk too much about your memories. Instead write them down. It’s easy to over think your story and get tense because you can’t remember something. It also takes you out of your dream state and into an analytical mode, which isn’t a good place to be when you’re writing your draft.
Start with one small scene or detail. Pick one faint memory or even something distinct and write about it using all your senses. Remember how the air smelled after the rain — like a mixture of dust and electricity — or how it felt to finally stretch out on a soft bed and smell the sweet scent of freshly laundered sheets after so many hours on the road. The more you write about a memory or incident or moment, the more you will remember.
Look at photographs. Find photos you have from that time or others from that time period in history. Photos, even if they aren’t of your specific life, or in this case trip, can remind you of small details that lead to remembering even more details.
Study maps. Look at maps and see if what you know by looking at a map will spark memories of what you aren’t sure about. You may find an atlas can spur more than just memories of roads driven.
Create a list of questions. In this case, I suggested my friend ask himself why he was taking the trip. What significance did it have, especially now looking back. Memoir is about meaning, so coming up with the core emotional truths — especially now looking back — may be as important as the physical route he took. What did he learn? Whom did he meet along the way and how did they change his outlook or beliefs about life? How is he different now? Why is he choosing to write about this part of his life now?
For another idea about how to remember details of your memories, read my post, How drawing can help you become a better writer.