How to Bring Memories from the Fog to the Light of Day 3

ONE OF THE CHALLENGES of writing memoir is pulling partial memories into full and clear focus, and remembering the concrete details surrounding those memories. You might want to write about your first day of school, the first time you met your stepmother, or your relationship with your father. But when you sit down to write, you discover that the events you wanted to write about exist in a kind of murky fog, just out of sight. You can remember with complete clarity one moment — a slice of light through the curtains, the twisted look on someone’s face, the joy of birth, or the pain of abuse. But you can’t remember exactly what you or someone else was doing, the floor plan of the house you were in or, with certainty, who else was present.

How you are supposed to write a true and compelling scene when you can’t really remember the scene?

Over time, I have developed a technique for recovering the details surrounding those memories, and I’d like to share this method with you. One caveat: If you are trying to write about a traumatic event in your life, this technique may bring up powerful and painful emotions. It’s important to know if you’re ready to dive into those emotions, as doing so can take a great deal of courage. If you’re not sure, give yourself permission to stop; you may not be ready to write about it yet, and that is okay.

[bctt tweet=”Diving into and writing about powerful emotions from past events can take a great deal of courage.” username=”writingthrulife”]

This memory recovery technique involves placing yourself into a kind of meditative state or trance. Find a quiet place to work, preferably away from your desk. (I find that taking my laptop or journal to my favorite reading chair works quite well.) Take a few deep, slow breaths and close your eyes. Count your heartbeat as you continue to breathe slowly and deeply. When the rhythm of your heart begins to slow, turn your attention to the inside of your eyelids. Then focus on the memory you have the intention of writing about, on the fragment of that memory that is most sensory, clear, and intense.

If the memory is a body sensation, focus on that sensation. Bring it back into your body. If that memory is a sound or a sight or a smell, bring it back to your ears, your eyes, your olfactory senses. Return to the emotion(s) those physical senses recall. Stay in that moment for a little while, until that sensation feels full and present. Then, open your eyes in your imagination and look around.

  • Where are you?
  • What do you see?
  • Who is with you?
  • What are they doing?
  • What gestures and facial expressions are they making?
  • What do their voices sound like?
  • What other sounds are present? Birds, frogs, dogs barking, trucks or trains in the background?
  • What do the air, the room, the people smell like?
  • What are you touching? What textures are present?

Continue this internal observation, turning around 360 degrees in your imagination until you have taken in the entire surroundings of the event or moment you are remembering.

Then, open your eyes, and write it all down. The sights and sounds and smells and textures, the actions and conversations and shapes around you.

It’s not a perfect technique, and you may find there are still gaps in your memory, but if you combine this technique with other memory triggers, including photographs, interviews, and research, you’ll have enough concrete details to write that scene.


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