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."

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.