Make the Most of Your Memory: 10 Tips for Writing About Your Life (2022)

In the courtroom, witnesses pledge to “tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.” An admirable goal, but a laughable one to memory researchers. Unless you’re Jill Price, a woman suffering from the first known case of hyperthymestic syndrome (“total recall”), such a feat is impossible. Why?

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Memory is not an impartial recording device. Retrieving a memory is not like using the playback mode on a video camera, nor is it like opening a document stored on a hard drive or pulling a file from an organized cabinet. Rather, recall is a reconstructive process, one that’s subject to error, bias, and suggestion. This obviously can cause problems when the accuracy of a memory is of the utmost importance, as it is when an eyewitness sits upon the stand to testify. But the fallible nature of the human memory system can be troublesome outside of the courtroom, as well.

Enter memoirists. There you sit, perched on the brink of full disclosure, the story of your fascinating life taking shape on the blank page before you. Writing memoirs is challenging enough without your memory getting in the way.

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Because memoirs are categorized as nonfiction, you intend to “tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth,” right? But how can you be sure your words are true (and avoid controversy)? How can you tell the whole truth of your richly detailed life, when you can’t even remember what you had for breakfast yesterday? And if you aim to tell “nothing but the truth,” does that mean you can’t invent a little when certain facts escape you but are vital to the depth and/or coherence of the story?

I’m both a writer and a cognitive psychologist who studies memory and metamemory (knowledge of our own memories), and I’ve devised a list of 10 tips to help you make the most of your memory as you write your life story:

1. Utilize memory triggers.

This one may seem obvious, but there’s nothing like a good, concrete trigger to get a memory flowing. Flip through photo albums and yearbooks, watch home movies, sort through old letters and e-mails you’ve saved, etc. You can even search for triggers online, including music, pictures, and videos from the era in question (one YouTube clip ofEureeka’s Castle, and half my childhood comes flooding back).

2. Get in the right mindset.

Have you ever been told to think about something happy when you’re feeling blue? The problem with this advice is that the first thoughts and memories that come to mind often match your mood. In the scientific literature, “state-dependent” memory effects suggest that memory performance is typically best when the internal state at encoding (during the original event) is congruent with the internal state at retrieval (when you try to remember it later). So, if you’re having a down day, don’t try writing the chapter about your wedding on a Hawaiian beach at sunset. Save that section for a day when you wake up on the right side of the bed.

What if you’re writing about a night spent at the bar? Here’s a fun tip—have a drink first. Seriously—undergraduates almost fall out of their chairs when I recommend that, should they ever happen to study for an exam while intoxicated, they should take the exam intoxicated, as well. (There’s a caveat, of course: the best memory performance comes from a sober-sober match up!)

(Video) How to triple your memory by using this trick | Ricardo Lieuw On | TEDxHaarlem

(Memoir vs. Autobiography)

3. Reinstate the context.

This is essentially the same principle as described above, but applied to theexternalcontext of the memory. Another education-related example: If you attend lectures in a particular classroom for an entire semester, your test performance should be better if your final exam is held in the same classroom, rather than a lecture hall across campus. What does this mean for memoirists? Revisiting the scenes of certain memories may be advantageous to your work—the experience will likely uncover details that would have otherwise remained buried.

4. Take advantage of your memory’s natural organization.

Autobiographical memory is special. It comprises both episodic memory (memory for events) and semantic memory (general knowledge), but it is unique in that all of the memories are relevant to YOU. Unlike other systems of memory, autobiographical memory contributes to the formation of your sense of self. It is not simply a log of your daily activities—the memories form the story of your life. This organization is beneficial to writers, because narrative arc is an essential component of a memoir.

(Kurt Vonnegut on the shape of stories.)

Here’s an activity to help you capitalize on this organization: on separate sheets of blank paper, make a timeline for each “sphere” of your life (school, work, family, friends, etc). Then, on each timeline, segment and label the important “periods;” separate these from each other with defining events—“turning points” such as moves, milestones, deaths, etc. (these can differ from timeline to timeline). Finally, take notes on what you remember from each period, staying completely within one sphere at a time. It’s also a good idea to make your first pass over the activity chronologically, even if you are not planning to organize your memoir that way.

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5. Pay attention to what’s distinct.

Some of our memories are hazy, fragmentary, confusing, or seemingly trivial. Yet there’s something about each one that makes it stick in our minds. Pay attention to the most distinctive, attention-grabbing elements of your memories and decide what those details say about you (or that time in your life), even if the memory itself is difficult to understand/work with. You might find that the idiosyncrasies of what you remember are useful illustrations of your personal quirks.

6. Leave out memories from the childhood amnesia period.

Or, more accurately—don’t describe events from that period as if you remember them firsthand. The consensus among researchers is that our first explicit memories are not consolidated until the second or third year of life; so, even if you think you remember lying in your crib as a 6-month-old child, watching your mobile spin round, you shouldn’t include this in your memoir, because it will detract from your credibility.

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7. Be a critical thinker.

We’re overconfident in our memories. Period. Question yourself as you write: Is what you’re saying plausible? Does it align with things you know for sure—facts about where you lived, who you knew, and what your day-to-day routine was like at the time? When in doubt, discuss the memory with friends and family members who were there. If no one can agree on what “really” happened, well … you’re the author, so you can decide what version to tell. My advice: note that there are competing (yet equally plausible) accounts, but then describe the event as you personally remember it (because it is, after all, your story).

8. Use your senses.

Remembering isn’t like looking at a static photograph, or even watching a video clip. Often, remembering is reliving—it’s a moving, breathing, sensory experience. The richness of such details is not only useful for distinguishing true memories from “false” memories or dreams, but also for connecting with your audience. Invite your readers into your experiences by including sensory details in your memoir. This is good practice with any type of creative writing, but memoirs are special because the perspective is uniquely your—one grounded in flesh and blood, rather than the imagined world of a character.

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9. It’s never too late to start keeping a journal.

The writing and revision process can last months or years—and who says that nothing interesting will happen to you during that period? Make things easier on your future self by writing down all the details of important events now, in case you want to include them in your memoir later.

10. Strive for truth, but accept honesty.

That’s cryptic, huh? Here’s what I mean: No one cares if Chuckles was really the name of the clown whose presence traumatized you at your fifth birthday party. Chuckles, Giggles, Lollipop, Snorkel—whatever name you use, it doesn’t change the integrity of your story, and that’s the important thing. This can hold for elements less trivial than names—such as date, location, dialogue, etc. Just make sure to tell your audience when you’ve knowingly entered the realm of speculation if the details and facts in question are central to the narrative arc.

We’ve all experienced the pitfalls of our memories, so your readers will understand that no memoirist can tell their story exactly as it happened. There is an element of fiction to every memoir, but, even if an objective “truth” is impossible, the important thing is that you give your memory a good workout during the writing process and make authenticity your ultimate goal.

An honest memoir is an unforgettable memoir.

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Make the Most of Your Memory: 10 Tips for Writing About Your Life (2)

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FAQs

Make the Most of Your Memory: 10 Tips for Writing About Your Life? ›

Here are 10 tips for writing about your life.
...
  • Utilize memory triggers. ...
  • Get in the right mindset. ...
  • Reinstate the context. ...
  • Take advantage of your memory's natural organization. ...
  • Pay attention to what's distinct. ...
  • Leave out memories from the childhood amnesia period. ...
  • Be a critical thinker. ...
  • Use your senses.
Aug 30, 2010

How do I write a story of my life? ›

Write the Story of Your Life
  1. Think about who is going to read your story. ...
  2. Just start writing. ...
  3. Write the Scenes of Your Life. ...
  4. Decide How to Organize Your Story. ...
  5. Choose a Theme. ...
  6. Use Friends and Family. ...
  7. Use Photos to Jog Your Memories. ...
  8. Add a Range of Emotions.

How do you start a memory writing? ›

Start Writing your Memories

The most important thing is not to wait. Collect the memories before the rememberers are gone. Time slips by quickly. As you have probably come to know, the opportunity to capture the details of what you know, or the memories of someone you love, can fall out of reach very easily.

What are some good memories? ›

Here's the full list
  • Christmas dinner.
  • Going to the beach.
  • Going to your grandparent's house.
  • Hearing the ice-cream van music.
  • Playing in the park.
  • Getting pocket money.
  • Buying penny sweets from the village shop.
  • Learning to ride a bike.
Apr 5, 2019

How do you introduce memory in a story? ›

4 Tips for Writing Flashbacks
  1. Use verb tense shifts to move between the flashback and main narrative. Whenever your narrative or characters recall a memory from a time before the story began, you have two choices. ...
  2. Keep them relevant. ...
  3. Sometimes the whole book is the flashback. ...
  4. Tell the present story first.
Nov 18, 2021

What is my life story? ›

Your life story is more than an accounting of events. It's also a memoir about your thoughts and your feelings surrounding the events, as well as how those specific events changed you.

Why are memories important in life? ›

Memory does not only hold important knowledge about our lives and our personal attributes and traits; through mental time travel, episodic memory can also directly transport us into past, to the person that lived through our previous experiences, and into the future, to the person we are yet to become.

What is happy memory? ›

'Happy memories form the cornerstone of our identity, and can help with combating depression and loneliness,' says Wiking. 'They influence our happiness in the current moment, as well as providing a framework for our hopes and dreams about the future.

What is your happiest memory? ›

Happiest childhood memories would be when we would visit our grandparents during our summer vacations. It used to be fun. Our grandparents would be eagerly waiting for us with all smiles and my grandmother would prepare all our favorite foods every single day.

How do you begin a story? ›

Try one or more of these strategies.
  1. Strategy 1: Begin with action or dialogue. ...
  2. Strategy 2: Ask a question. ...
  3. Strategy 3: Describe the setting. ...
  4. Strategy 4: Begin with background information. ...
  5. Strategy 5: Have the main character introduce himself or herself.

How do you write childhood memories? ›

Writing Prompts about Childhood Memories
  1. Who was your best childhood friend? ...
  2. Describe one of your earliest childhood memories. ...
  3. When you were little, did you ever try to run away from home? ...
  4. Can you remember your mom's or grandmother's kitchen? ...
  5. Describe the most unusual or memorable place you have lived.
May 23, 2018

What is a life story? ›

Definition of life story

: the things that have happened to someone in life a life story that includes a childhood of extreme poverty She told us her life story.

What is your life experience? ›

A life experience is an experience that changes an individual. This is associated with hardships, problems, risk taking, effort and originality whereby individuals stretch themselves to improve their character, talents and knowledge.

How do you explain memory? ›

Memory refers to the location of short-term data, while storage refers to the location of data stored on a long-term basis. Memory is most often referred to as the primary storage on a computer, such as RAM. Memory is also where information is processed. It enables users to access data that is stored for a short time.

How do stories develop our memory skills? ›

Each item seems to be incomplete without all the others. In this way, stories generate context and momentum, and they bring closure, telling your brain when it's done. The technique can be applied to more or less any form of information you want to remember.

What is a mnemonic story? ›

Using the Story Method Mnemonic

As its name suggests, the story method involves linking words to be learned in a story. While this is most obviously useful for learning actual list, it can also be used for remembering the main points of a passage.

What is episodic memory examples? ›

Your first kiss, first day of school, a friend's birthday party, and your brother's graduation are all examples of episodic memories. In addition to your overall recall of the event itself, the episodic memory include the locations and times of the events.

Videos

1. Writing Your Life Story: Get Started with this Exercise
(KN Literary)
2. How to Remember what you study? | How to Increase your Memory Power? | Study Tips | Letstute
(Let'stute)
3. Most Effective Way to IMPROVE MEMORY (& Memorize ANYTHING)
(Med School Insiders)
4. How To Improve Your Memory RIGHT NOW!
(AsapSCIENCE)
5. 10 STEPS TO IMPROVE YOUR MEMORY - Jim Kwik | London Real
(London Real)
6. How to write descriptively - Nalo Hopkinson
(TED-Ed)

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