“Songs and smells will bring you back to a moment in time more than anything else. It’s amazing how much can be conjured with a few notes of a song or a solitary whiff of a room. A song you didn’t even pay attention to at the time, a place that you didn’t even know had a particular smell.”
Lately, as I attempt to finish my memoir, I find myself looking for motivational triggers to release memories perhaps faded or almost forgotten. So many stimuli in our environment can release memories — photographs, letters, music, smells, words and phrases, hearing from old friends:
The following excerpt from my draft memoir is an example of the impact of the sense of smell on memory:
I stand in the kitchen mashing bananas for muffins, and I’m suddenly aware of beginnings and endings. To nourish my infant son some 30 years ago, I mashed bananas as part of his diet to nourish what was beginning in him. My mind’s eye also sees clearly the mornings I stood beside my mom’s bed in her nursing home room mashing bananas hoping to sustain what was left of her life. The ordinary things of life so often mark the eclipsing joys and sorrows of our lives.
The essence of the banana I was mashing reached my olfactory senses and plunged me deep into the cycle of life as I remembered both my son’s infancy and the end of my mother’s life. It is a cherished memory in both situations.
Other triggers I find helpful that are close at hand are listed below:
- Photographs are an effective means of triggering memories, both about people, places and time. For example, this photograph of my mother reminds me instantly of her strength and determination, but also the set of her jaw and mouth centers my memory on her tragic method of disciplining with cruel words that struck at your emotional stability. Despite the age and damage to the image, I can see, hear and feel the power with which she moved about daily doing her housework and making a home for us. At the same time, I can also see, hear and feel the wrath and temper behind her angry words and manipulations as she punished us. The photo also reminds me of where we were living, her age at the time, and some memories that were made in our home there. Using photographs to evoke memories is effective. If you have access to old family photos, try looking at a few to see what memories they may trigger.
- Music can also evoke memories especially when connected to specific events. For me, listening to classical music enhances my writing time. Something about the harmonies floating together, the richness of the instrumental sounds, and even at times the dissonance in some compositions enhance settings, moods of characters, and other writing elements depending on the selection being played. Edgar Elgar’s Enigma Variations is a work consisting of 14 variations based on an impromptu composition. The ninth variation, commonly called Nimrod, was introduced to me by a now-deceased brother-in-law who enjoyed words and excelled at writing. His encouragement of my writing endeavors is mentally linked to that beautiful Elgar composition for eternity. When I hear it, I immediately think of times with Jim talking about writing and words. My writing suddenly becomes swifter and easier.
A couple of weeks ago Sharon Lippincott shared on the Lifewriters Forum a link, Upchucky.org/JukeCity, where, by clicking on the year you graduated from high school or college, you can select from 20 popular musical selections from that year. For me, the memories were flowing as I listened to the music of my high school graduation year, 1964, and I was reminded of listening to it on a tabletop jukebox like the one shown here. Check it out — it’s great fun and perhaps there’s a story waiting for you.
Are there perhaps recordings of music that touch you in such a way or that are connected to events such that they would bring back memories you may have otherwise forgotten?
- As mentioned above, smells can be evocative of certain memories and places. There are foods that when I smell them cooking I am instantly transported to my mother’s kitchen. An especially strong aroma for me is the smell of chocolate chip cookies baking. I see myself perched on Mom’s kitchen stool. It was red and had two steps to get to the seat. From there, I imagined myself helping, which wasn’t allowed, but it didn’t hurt to imagine (no one else knew what I was imagining!). Oh, but the smells of baking that filled the kitchen were luscious. Other recipes of Mom’s can also take me back to that kitchen.Try making a meal or a single recipe from your childhood and see if it has an impact on your memories and how easily they may come forward.
- Lastly, let’s look at the power of words and phrases to evoke memories. Certain phrases from my family included “whatever floats your boat,” “that’s so hard bet you can’t stick a pin in it,” “shut my mouth,” and many more that I can think of in my family. Growing up in the deep South, I also remember colloquialisms such as “his’n” and “her’n” instead of “his” and “her” or “hit’s jest down the road apiece” when you’ve asked for directions. My mom’s maid, Lucy, always called me “my sweet chile.” When I’m back in Tennessee for a visit and I hear the word “chile,” I immediately see Lucy and smell her lavender water that she always wore. I also feel the softness of her arms around me and her lap when I needed it.
These are just a few of the triggers that came to mind as I prepared this post. I am sure many more exist in our individual worlds and environments.
What triggers do you find most helpful in your writing? Would love for you to share them in the comments section below.
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Coming up next: Continuing the memoir resource series with Linda Joy Myers and her book, The Power of Memoir: How to Write Your Healing Story. You don’t want to miss this!