5 Ways to Excavate Memories

Archaeologists reach fame, and sometimes fortune, in excavating historical sites. Sometimes their finds are unexpected. Other times they rumors point to the place where an Egyptian pharaoh’s tomb might be located. Often they decide to dig near a historic site “just because.”

Via John Atherton on Flickr
Via John Atherton on Flickr

Memoirists are akin to archaeologists in the way they mine their memories for the right facts and stories to include in their memoirs. Many people have amazing minds catalogued similarly to a library catalog, even into separate rooms for certain memories. Unfortunately, my memory and/or mind is not so neatly organized. How about yours?

Even with the painful history I’m working from in writing my memoir, sometimes I need help in excavating memories which will make for fact-based, truthful, and interesting reading.

He was still too young to know that the heart’s memory eliminates the bad and magnifies the good, and that thanks to this artifice we manage to endure the burden of the past. ~ Gabriel Garcí­a Márquez, Love in the Time of Cholera

Following are some tips for making your memory work easier:

  1. Look at old photographs. Images evoke memories of special occasions, celebrations, growth, changes. Remember the picture in your high school yearbook taken by the professional photographer? Did it really look like you? What are your memories of that day? The possibilities for good flash memoir, a chapter in your book, or a blog post can be found in a stack of old black-and-whites.
  2. Items passed down through the family. We are in the process of downsizing and getting rid of many years of accumulation. And yet we also continue to receive family items, most recently a rocking chair in which husband Bob’s grandfather always sat. That rocking chair sits silently in our family room, but generates great conversation as Bob shares his memories of life on the farm and his grandpa in that chair. What item of furniture or family history do you have that brings back memories?
  3. What about smells? For me, certain aromas or smells evoke memories of my mother’s kitchen. Mama was a Southern cook to the core with meals consisting of more than could be eaten. But oh, the wonderful aromas as opened the front door after school! Husband Bob uses the aftershave my dad did, and its smell brings back early morning memories of Dad preparing for work. Or the smell of newsprint brings Dad right into the room with me. Is there an aroma that reminds you of someone or something?
  4. Language, dialect, and regional idioms. Growing up in the South, we called every carbonated beverage in the store or gas station “Coke.” Fast forward to 1983, we move to Oregon where the regional nomenclature for carbonated beverages is “pop.” There isn’t a distinct dialect in the Pacific NW so for a time I would stand out in groups because of my Southern drawl. It could make for some embarrassing incidents, and I quickly moved to tame my tongue. [tweetthis]The uniqueness of language, dialect, and regional idioms are excellent memory triggers. [/tweetthis]
  5. Music of a certain period. Music is a powerful tool in evoking memories. Think of a particular song you’ve listened to for decades. Perhaps from your teens, your early years of marriage, or maybe a lullaby sung to you as a child. I remember well the song, “Glow Worm.” A recital piece in my early musical career. I worked hard to use correct fingering, keep the rhythm exact, and incorporate all the dynamics. I’ll never forget that song, or the dress my mother made for that recital, or the smile my dad give me as I took my bow, or the pride I felt in my accomplishment. What song or piece of music brings back memories for you?

As you work on your book or a short piece of memoir, perhaps one or more of these tips will be useful to you in digging up the memories you want to share.

Share another method you may use in your writing to evoke memories. We can have a great discussion in the comment area below.

13 thoughts on “5 Ways to Excavate Memories

  1. Great food for thought Sherrey. Certainly pictures and certain smells take me back to places and incidents from the past – albeit, some not always so happy, but definitely a help for writing.

  2. This is a timely post, Sherrey, given the intense debate happening right now about memory retrieval and conflated memories re: Brian Williams of NBC News. Yes to using as much primary material as possible in “excavating” (I like that word) memory.Let me add to the list playing reporter, i.e., interviewing others who were there. I didn’t interview my mother or father for my memoir (!), but I interviewed both of my kids and my wife. My daughter actually fixed a timeline issue I had with the events in the scene that opened my book. I chose not to interview again the artists depicted, but I had a lot of primary material (video, photographs, and an audio diary).

    1. Patrick, thanks for joining the conversation. Memory retrieval is an important issue in the news world currently and as you say, intense debate is occurring. Another area of memory retrieval is the earlier diagnoses of diseases like Alzheimer’s. Still Alice by Lisa Genova and now a movie sheds a great deal of light on this latter issue. “Excavating” came from my own feelings of resurrecting those memories that sometimes are unclear because of the earliness in my childhood. There’s really no one to cement them for me, so I want to get the greatest clarity possible. I love that your daughter was able to help you fix a timeline issue. Perhaps she too will become a writer. So good to hear from you.

  3. This is a comprehensive list, Sherrey and used every one of them in my memoir. The only other one I would add is to visit your old neighborhood (if possible), even if it has to be via Google maps and then journal about the places you’ve lived, including describing the house(s) in which you’ve lived . That exercise alone triggered many memories.

    1. Kathy, I have used Google maps to look at the places where I lived as a child. It’s quite interesting to use this exercise. Also, in the latter years of my mom’s life, I visited my birth city and places where we had lived and took photos of houses and friends of the family. Those are becoming helpful as well. Thanks being my forever faithful friend.

  4. Visiting places from your past can trigger memories such as a home lived in years ago, grandparents home, an old school house or church. Be prepared for these memories to be strong. When writing my memoir I used all of your suggested ways to ‘excavate’ memories. I love the use of that word. Thank you for your posts!

    1. Thanks, Pamela, for adding another tip to the list — visiting places from our past. Glad you enjoyed the post, and thanks for a “little something extra!” 🙂

  5. Visiting places from your past can trigger memories such as a home lived in years ago, grandparents home, an old school house or church. Be prepared for these memories to be strong. When writing my memoir I used all of your suggested ways to ‘excavate’ memories. I love the use of that word. Thank you for your posts.
    I will be teaching a class on memoir in April 2015 and would like your permission to use your website as a resource…please.

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