Triggers for Releasing Memories

“Songs and smells will bring you back to a moment in time morethan 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.”


Emily Giffin

Something Borrowed

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 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.
Image: Wikipedia
Image: Wikipedia

A couple of weeks ago Sharon Lippincott shared on the Lifewriters Forum a link,, 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?

Image: RecycleBuyVintage
Image: RecycleBuyVintage
  • 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!

19 thoughts on “Triggers for Releasing Memories

  1. This is such a great post! When I smell shoe polish, I remember polishing my dad’s Army boots. And when I hear Irish music, I think of my Gramma. And, I bet I could come up with a hundred others (like Raisin Bran reminds me of my Grampa because I would sit in his lap when I was 3 and eat the raisins out of his bowl). Thanks for the trip down memory lane!

    1. Allison, sorry to be slow in replying to your comment. We’ve been away for Thanksgiving with family. I love the trigger the smell of shoe polish is for you. And the Raisin Bran trigger and the reason for it. I’m so gladl you came by for a moment and shared these.

  2. Terrific post. In addition to the triggers you mention, Sherrey, I also believe in the “power of place” to trigger memories. Going back to the farm I grew up on really brought emotion to my memoir. I’ve also found it useful to go to places I’ve included in my novel to gather details to bring the story to life.

    1. Oh, the power of place absolutely didn’t come to mind, but I do know what you’re talking about! I am anticipating working on a novel when my memoir is finished and published, and I’ve thought of the places I need to go in order to get a clear picture and research the history of the place.

    2. Carol, you are fortunate that way. Returning to my childhood home in Los Alamos a year ago ripped away any illusion that I could ever “go home.” I had to concentrate hard to avoid having the New Town overwrite memories of the place I loved so much. Cognitive dissonance and grief precluded any sense of nostalgia.
      Sherrey, great post. You know I’m always beating the sensory description drum.

      1. Sharon, thanks for your input. My experience of returning to my childhood home is much the same as yours. So much has changed. Places I remember vividly in my mind’s eye have been torn down in favor of modern high-rise buildings, and streets reinvented that once led to all my cherished places. Your last sentence says it all for me. Yet, I have never been to the places where my father grew up and his childhood in an orphanage in Louisville is the subject of a historical novel I hope to write next. I’m hoping a trip to the still existent campus, along with historic photos, will help me set the scene as accurately as possible. We’ll see.

  3. Loved this, Sherrey. To this day, I can still recall the certain smells of my grandparent’s apartment. And I agree about the music. I relate certain songs to certain periods of my life (and music inspires me to write also.)
    The vintage photo of the step stool (probably it was called something else) brought back a long forgotten memory for me. My Mom had one of those and it sat in our kitchen next to the refrigerators.

    1. Joan, isn’t it amazing how long smells can remain in our memory bank? I can still smell my dad’s aftershave and the smell of ink on him at the end of the day working at the printshop. BTW, we called it a step stool.

  4. Loved this, Sherrey. What a great resource for us boomer memoirists. I’ll be sharing various bits and the whole thing. Happy Thanksgiving.

    1. Hello, Shirley, and so pleased you “loved this.” Share away! We boomers do have a lot to offer each other, don’t we! Enjoy connecting each time we do.

  5. Yes, Sherrey, old photos and songs from different eras do it for me ( I’m from the high school Class of 64, too). never really thought of smells or tastes but come to think of it, when my cousin bakes our traditional Easter bread, the smell and taste of it takes me right back to my grandmother’s (Nan)kitchen. Actually even the mention of it brings out the sense of it’s taste. Your excerpt is so poignant. This post is packed with pearls. Thank you for sharing.

    1. Imagine this — both pianists and graduated class of ’64! How many more commonalities can we find? I’m so glad you delved into the smell of the traditional Easter bread. I wouldn’t have believed it possible to have a smell evoke memories until it happened to me that day. Thanks for your generous words, Kathy.

    1. The same happened with Bob’s 50th high school reunion. There were lots of yearbooks brought by classmates, and someone had gathered random photos from various places. The memories that began to flood for this group of people was amazing.
      I need to get over to your blog and catch up on reading. For some reason lately, I seem to be spending more time on the book than being social, which I suppose is the right thing to do. BUT . . . I miss my friends.

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