5 Memory Prompts to Help You Remember Your Best Life Stories

We all experience writer’s block from time to time, and when it comes to capturing our cherished memories, they can become as elusive as the White Rabbit. These practical cues based on the five senses can help to improve your memory when capturing your best life moments.

 1. Try “Dipping the Madeleine”

Begin with Marcel Proust’s famous memory ploy from “In Search of Lost Time.” The novel’s narrator claims it’s a labor in vain to attempt to recapture our past but soon finds himself involuntarily—and blissfully—sliding into a childhood reverie while enjoying a treat he hadn’t tasted in years: a Madeleine dipped in tea. “We need something that will trigger the involuntary memories, many of which have lain dormant for years,” Barbara Donsky, author of “Veronica’s Grave,” has said in a talk for the National Association of Memoir Writers.

2. Your Pictures Are Worth 1000 Words

According to writer Rosanne Bane, after insight, the second stage of the creative process is saturation. Immerse yourself in data, details, and facts, says Bane in “Around the Writer’s Block: Using Brain Science to Solve Writer’s Resistance.” “Flip through photo albums, diaries, journals, and other documents to trigger memories and associations,” she says. “It’s helpful to list the questions you want to answer.” Not the type to keep written remembrances? Review old calendars and archived emails. Even completed to-do lists can fuel a recollection.

3. Discover That Touch Does Have a Memory

Author Bryan Cohen says he acquired his best tool in acting class. For the blog “Memoir Writer’s Journey,” he describes the exercise: Pretend to hold a favorite childhood toy, using fingers and hands to “remember” its shape and texture. “It took a few tries, but I felt like I was transported back to my childhood room,” says Cohen. “I saw vivid details of my bed, carpet, and toys.” Since it doesn’t necessarily require a physical prompt, this technique can become your go-to muse—anytime or anywhere.

4. Make It Simple—Sing a Song

Music evokes nostalgia in many of us, especially tunes associated with certain eras or events. In his creative-non-fiction classes at St. Lawrence University, Dr. William Bradley asks students to read current memoirs, such as Hope Edelman’s “Bruce Springsteen and the Story of Us,” which illustrate the connection between music and memory. Says Dr. Bradley in a post for Macmillan Publishing: “I’ve found that most people have such a song whose opening bars can transport them back to a specific moment in their lives.”

5. Fragrances Fire Up Flashbacks

For some, coconut-scented sunscreen recalls the beach, and the aroma of percolating coffee equals lazy Sunday mornings. For the BBC’s Tom Stafford, it’s a hint of the toy cupboard at his grandmother’s house that brings on reminiscing about his grandparents, their home, and the toys themselves. “It had a particular smell. I cannot tell you what it was, but sometimes now as an adult I will catch a whiff of it,” Stafford has said, of unlocking memories he’d thought long lost.

Whichever methods you choose, it’s okay not to get all the details exactly right. Memories may not always be perfectly factual, but according to memoirist Mary Karr (“The Liar’s Club”), they reveal your desires and motivations at the time.

“In some sense your memory is much truer than a videotape would be,” Karr has said in New York magazine. “Memory captures all the stuff a videotape wouldn’t.”

Tap your memories and write meaningful letters about your life story:
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