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. Read more
One of my friends came to me recently feeling overwhelmed about writing her life story. She struggled with knowing where to start and what to include. I advised her to approach it as a group of stories about the big, pivotal moments in her life instead of trying to write the “story of her life.”
I figured this technique out when I helped my uncle write his personal story. He focused on key moments that caused a shift in how he looked at life and how he matured as a man, including: time spent on the battlefield in World War II, meeting and marrying his wife, and the birth of his sons. These moments were the catalyst for change, which is something we want our characters to do in stories, whether they’re real-life people or imagined characters living out the plot we create.
If you’re struggling with how to write your personal story or memoir, set your focus on the big, memorable moments.
In the end, you’ll have a group of stories that you can weave together to form a whole. Here are several tips and prompts to help you start:
- Excavate memories by using the words, “I remember.” Riff on this question to unearth important memories. Read more
Firsts are powerful: your first kiss, first love, first car, first death of a pet or loved one, first child. If you think back on your firsts, they will mostly contain a tremendous amount of emotion.
Talking with Carly yesterday about curse words, she mentioned that she remembered her father rarely, if ever, swearing. I told her that every other word my father spoke was the “f” word. Because I heard it so often growing up, the word had little meaning to me. To my ears, it was the equivalent of someone saying, “damn.” Read more