Writing Memoir – How Do You Remember So Much?

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For the past few years my major focus has been writing memoir, recording aspects of my life in the 1950s and 1960s. By capturing small snippets of my everyday life, I’ve been able to preserve memories from the past. The above photo certainly is my first recalled memory of going swimming, something that became a major focus of my teenage years.

After the publication of my 1950s school memoir, ‘West End the Best End – School Memories from the 1950s’ many people asked me, “How do you remember so much?  I’d forgotten all those things”. I don’t think my memory is any better than other people, but I’ve trained myself to recall incidents hiding somewhere in my brain. I also discovered the more I write my memories down, the more I remember.

I think one of the most important things is to keep your memoir writer’s brain switched on at all times. Almost anything you do in everyday life can be a trigger to memories from a previous time in your life. You need only to be receptive to the triggers around you. A supermarket queue can prompt memories of grocery shopping in earlier times. The doctor’s waiting room can prompt memories of childhood sickness.

One powerful trigger of my own memories is talking to other people. As I wrote my school memoir I engaged similar aged people in conversation about their own school days. Often they’d remember something I’d forgotten and so yet another memory surfaced. Other people love to share their past and once they’re aware you’re working on a memoir project they’re usually happy to compare notes of similar experiences. This adds depth to your own memories. I’ll certainly be talking to many of the people in the swim team below as I work on my latest project, the story of our local swimming baths in the 1960s.

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Old photos also enable memories to be recalled.  When you look at an old photo try and recall as much about the occasion as you can and write your memories down. Ask other people who may remember the photographed event about  their memories of the occasion.

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Reading other material, both fiction and non-fiction from the period being written about is another way of bringing memories back, reminding you how people behaved at the time, giving authenticity to your writing.

Always think of yourself as a memoir writer and keep your mind open. You never know when a little detail will present itself to you. Write remembered incidents down as soon as you can. It doesn’t matter if anecdotal stories are written out of order. There’s plenty of time to organize them and improve your writing later. The important thing is to start writing. You’ll be surprised how easily memories start flowing in.

Do you use other ideas that act as memory triggers? Be sure to share them with us here.

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10 thoughts on “Writing Memoir – How Do You Remember So Much?

  1. I adore these photos – memories of a time since past. You make excellent points here and it is important to hang on to those memories any way we can. As I am not writing about the past at present, I don’t keep particular records, however there is no doubt that our experiences throughout our life shape us as writers and you have given me food for thought in terms of keeping memories more safely than I currently do. Thank you for a lovely post and for sharing those photos.

  2. Lovely post, Val. When I return to the UK, I am going to go through the family pics. It is my intention to create a scrapbook with memories recorded, for my baby granddaughter to enjoy in the future.

    • When I have a glass of wine I forget the lot Johnny! Being back in the 60s could bring on crazy times 🙂

  3. Some good strategies for jogging the memory there, Val. My memories are very poor too, like Johnny’s. Perhaps a few Baileys would bring them back.
    By the way your book was here when I returned from my latest trip away so I shall look forward to reading it over the weekend. Thank you.

    • Aha, I haven’t had a Baileys for years – thanks for the memory Christine! Glad the book has arrived 🙂

  4. You’re right, Val. You never know what will trigger those memories. And once you write them down, friends and family members all contact you to report that they remember things a tiny bit differently … and actually expect you to rewrite to reflect their memory. I post a disclaimer regarding accuracy right on my home page.
    And thanks again for following 1950 Suburban Adventures. It’s great comparing memories of the same time period between current UK residents, and those of us who fled over 350 years ago to escape the hangman.

    • Aha , think you’re mixing NZ with Aussie. Most of us Kiwis came to NZ in a more dignified style 🙂 we didn’t need to steal a loaf of bread

  5. Oops, sorry. Now you see why I don’t write mysteries. My detective skills do not deduce correctly. And I think my ancestors stole more than a loaf of bread before their hasty retreat to the New World.

    • LOL, you, along with a few others, have prompted the piece I’ve just posted here. meanwhile, I rush off to work for Tuesday!

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