Finding Your Memories

You’re the one who’s lived your life, so you know you have memories, but by the time you get around to writing them down you may find that those memories are not as sharp as you’d thought. What was that person’s name again? Where did we meet for coffee that day? Which car did I have back then? Which one of my siblings came with us? The last thing you want is to open up your published book, read a passage and slap yourself on the forehead because you suddenly realize that you got something very wrong, even if it was a relatively minor detail.

So how do you find those memories or check whether what you’re remembering today is actually what happened in the past? Your memories fall into two categories: those that have some documentation, and those that reside solely in your head and/or someone else’s head. If you do everything on the following checklist, you’ll exhaust both groups. Once you’ve done the best you can do, then if you find out after publication that you made an error, at least you won’t blame yourself for not doing the legwork.

  • Check records. The public domain offers a lot of documentation regarding personal milestones—birth dates, death dates, marriage dates, birthplaces, home purchases, criminal offenses. But Google searches also are useful for fact-checking everything from the location of a restaurant and the year a car model was introduced to the correct spelling of a street name, military base or TV character.
  • Consult your diary. If you kept a journal at any point in your life, you are one of the lucky ones! This helps immensely as you try to get back into your younger head not just for factual detail but for mood, motive and reaction.
  • Interview friends and family. Older family members often have all sorts of information to contribute to your memoir, such as the family’s geographic roots and some family secrets they’ll agree to share. Gather your siblings and play “Match the Memory” to confirm your recollections of your childhood. Ask your friends to recall conversations you had with them at the time of a situation you’re describing in your memoir.
  • Gather artifacts and photos. Go into your attic, basement, parents’ house, friends’ Facebook pages and anywhere else that may hold visual cues like photos, slides, home movie film, letters, Christmas cards, picture postcards, personal calendars and phone directories, “Rolodex” cards, newspaper clippings, report cards, school programs, mementos, artwork, trophies and other awards, house deeds and floor plans, medical records, passports and other travel documents and even old clothing to get a feel for the fashion of earlier times.
  • Listen to contemporaneous music. There’s nothing like an old song to rekindle the emotion you felt at the time it was popular. Close your eyes and picture not only where you were when you heard the song but who you were.
  • Visit old neighborhoods. Spending a day in your hometown and dropping by haunts where you used to hang out can spark memories with sights and sounds. As with the music of the time, physically being in the space can recreate emotion that you may not have experienced in a long time.
  • Make your mom’s recipe. Taste and smell are two more important senses for triggering memory and emotion. Even if it doesn’t work on that level, it’s fun to cook or bake something you ate during your childhood.
  • Daydream. When you’re writing a memoir, daydreaming is not a waste of time. Think back to a year or an event, and let your mind wander wherever it wants to go. Really get lost inside your head—but as soon as you come out of your trance, write it all down!