Memoirists do not have perfect memories, but they do know how to mine for them. None of us can remember every detail of any event we’ve experienced, especially if it happened several years before or back in our childhoods. And that knowledge – knowing we don’t remember everything – often stops us in our tracks when we want to write about the past.

We don’t have to be able to fill in every little detail; but the more we have, the more alive our story becomes. While it’s not important whether the curtains at the funeral parlor were red velvet or gold brocade, it is essential to remember what your teacher said that was so poignant about your best friend, Ronnie, who died in a car accident. You don’t have to be sure you ate fried chicken and mashed potatoes the night your parents announced they were getting a divorce, but you do need to be pretty clear about what it was about their explanation that made you certain they were lying about the real reasons.

So, how do your improve your memory? Jane Taylor McDonnell talks about ways to help memoirists remember better in her book Living to Tell the Tale. Here are some ideas that come from McDonnell, along with my own added twists and examples.

Personal research

  1. Make lists of what you remember about the event.

  • I remember I was really anxious about how my father was going to react when I told him I was pregnant.

  • I thought he was going to be overjoyed, he’d always wanted a son, so maybe he would love the idea of a grandson.

  • I couldn’t understand why he was so angry.

  • I remember how he slammed the door on the way out.

  • I remember my mother shouting at him, telling him to come back in.

  • I remember my husband saying, “I told you so.”

  1. Make lists of what you don’t remember about the event.

  • I don’t remember why I was anxious, since I had convinced myself he was going to be happy.

  • I know I said something really ugly to my mother, but I don’t remember what it was.

  • I don’t know if I cried or not.

  • I don’t know where my husband and I went right afterwards.
    I don’t remember how aware I was about my feelings about my father, other than shock.

  1. Make lists of senses to explore for each event.

  • I remember it was so cold in the living room at their house that night.

  • I smelled the smoky remnants from fireplace, even though there was no fire that evening.

  • I could hear my father’s breathing growing faster and raspier.

  • I could taste the blood inside my mouth where I had bit my cheek after I screamed at my mother.

  • I saw the portrait gallery of all the relatives that were on the west paneled wall of the room.

  • I saw my mother fighting the urge to cry.

  1. Use freewriting to go deeper instead of just making lists. Freewriting can allow our thoughts to race faster and provide more insights that lists do.

  2. Write about whatever it is you have not told anyone about that time. It could be that you realized you were never going to be able to please your father no matter what you did. It could be you realized you were glad your father was angry because it gave you an excuse to cut him out of your life.

  3. Accept anything uncomfortable as a reason to go deeper. The more uncomfortable it is, the more you need to explore it.


Don’t stop with your own memories:

Use photos, letters, journals, family scrapbooks, medical records, divorce papers, marriage certificates, birth records, death certificates, and wills.

Check with others who were part of the event, so you can find out what they remember and thought about what happened. It’s okay if it doesn’t match your memory, but their take might spur your memory or give you a different perspective to consider.

Research the time and place the event happened.

  • History Central provides information on most popular music, TV shows, books, news events, movies, and more for each year in the 20th century.

  • Google searches and images.

  • National and state newspapers. For example, Washington State has a full archive online.

  • Books from that time period.

  • State and county historical records, deeds of property, and accounting registers.

For information on memoir (this week’s topic on my blog), please click HERE