Three Ways to Mine Your Memory for Inspiration

Balch House
credit: Boston Public Library,

Every writer has to start somewhere. If you’re writing something personal, especially allegorical fiction or memoir, this means you begin somewhere in your memory, threading your version of the past through your fingers like a magician pulling silk scarves from his own throat.

But the problem is this: You’ve got a lot of memories. Some beautiful, some ugly, some just plain boring. Your job as a writer, whether you use fiction or nonfiction as your vehicle, is to pick exactly the right memories and arrange them so that your reader feels like they’re on common ground with you, not like they’re watching home movies, or being forced to look at your vacation photos. Your job is to make your memories mean something to them. And maybe, perhaps, trigger some memories of their own.

But how do you choose the right memory? Here are three suggestions.


1. Layer it. Pick a memory and enfold it in several layers of words. Try writing about it from several different points of view. Tell it matter-of-factly, as though you were just an on-scene reporter stating the obvious.

Then show the memory from another actor’s point of view. Your grandmother was at that birthday party too, you know. She sat on a plastic lawn chair at the table in the corner as you and your sister argued that day. What did she see? How did your memory look to her, or any of the other wide-eyed people there that afternoon?

Then recount the incident as though you’d actually told it to the police. What would you say? What facts would you omit, what truth would you shade?

Getting completely around your memory gives your mind the space and the tools to really understand it, and see the deeper meaning behind why it speaks to you, so you can let it speak to your reader.


2. Pick a place in time that you think about every day. Where is one place in your past that you drift to, at least once every day, if not every hour? And why? What keeps taking you back there?

You should pick out these kinds of memories first, the ones that keep bubbling to the surface no matter how many new memories you make. Memoir requires that you work through memories over a considerable period of time, so why not begin your writing with the pile of pre-chewed memories your mind has already set out for you?

credit: Dariuszka,
credit: Dariuszka,

3. Reduce the memory to one sentence. Elevator speech it. Manipulate it and render it and boil it down until all the fat melts away and you’re left with just the essential theme that underpins your experience. A page-long scene about that nasty car accident on your way home from work can be distilled into its single moving part: That you don’t remember what happened in the final five seconds of the crash, that nobody’s sure if the car rolled over the guard rail or crashed through it, and you’re  curious but also glad for small favors such as those little redactions of memory.

Once you work it down to its essential, simple shape, the memory becomes a puzzle piece that’s easy to work with, and you get to decide whether it fits with your story or not.

What about you? How do you mine your memories for things to write about?