Published Author, Professional Storyteller & Writer, and Educator
Published Author, Professional Storyteller & Writer, and Educator
Published Author, Professional Storyteller & Writer, and Educator


Find Your Hidden Memories

Lately, I've presented workshops to senior citizens who want to write their memoirs as a legacy for their children, grandchildren, and other family members. Trying to dig into ones past is not easy, but with a few prompts, it becomes fun.

I liken our mind to that of a computer, which stores all of our memories. Think of your brain as a massive filing system with early memories shoved to the back, and more recent memories taking place up front. The "old" memories get pushed so far back that they're often difficult to retrieve - they're hidden, forgotten and confusing. We need hooks or triggers to help us focus on specifics and retrieve those memories.

There are several methods to help us locate and extract the memories and they're all effective. Before doing anything, make a list of springboards to refer to, such as Places where you've lived, visited, special rooms, garden, hiding place, etc. Another springboard - Events and Celebrations such as holidays, birthdays, weddings, vacations. Then there are People such as family members, teachers, friends, co-workers, neighbors. And we mustn't forget Experiences that were happy, funny, scary, humiliating, exciting and so on. Determine which subject you wish to focus on, using one of the following activities, and flesh out the details that surround it.

  • Relaxation and Imagery - sit in a comfortable chair, feet on the floor, hands relaxed. Close your eyes, breathe deeply, and tell yourself to "Relax now." Mentally count backward from 5 to 0 and "walk" into your selected "scene".
  • Interview (Yourself or Others) - Prepare a list of questions you want answered and decide which one to focus on. Sit in a room free from distractions. Mentally ask yourself the question, give yourself time to think and respond to it. When the question is answered, jot down your recollections for later use.
  • Using Prompts (Jewelry, Photographs, Mementos, Articles of clothing) - As you study the prompt from all sides and angles, lightly rub your fingers over it and ask yourself questions - How was it obtained? Who gave it to you? What was the occasion? What was the significance of the person who gave it to you? How did you feel when you acquired it?
  • Topic Ideas - List and categorize topics to refer to: Family - legends, traditions, jokes, vacations, songs, games, events. Childhood - chores, neighbors, friends, schools, sports, activities/clubs, illnesses, operations, incidents, anecdotes. Special Events - holidays, awards, births, weddings, birthdays, funerals, accidents. Self - special interests, hobbies, talents, dreams, jobs, organizations/clubs, education, travels, first car, first trip, enemies, girl/boy friend, dates. Go to a quiet place, free from distraction, and concentrate on yourself and the story. Picture yourself at the time of the memory - your age, how you were dressed, how you looked/acted/moved, what you said, how you felt, and so on. Take your time. When finished, jot it all down.
  • Triggers - Storyteller Donald Davis wrote Telling Your Own Stories, published by August House (1993) in which he offers several prompts that begin with (1) Can You Remember...(2) Take Me With You...and (3) Can You...These unique prompts help you dig deeper into the memory bank, and are helpful in creating your own stories. The author gave me permission to list his prompts and share them with others, so if you're interested in seeing them, email me at, and I'll gladly send them to you.
  • Miscellaneous Sources - Diaries and letters of family members, wills, legacies, family photo albums, home movies, and stories that have been handed down.

These suggestions and examples are by no means complete, but at least they'll give you a place to start. Locating memories takes a long time to do - it doesn't happen at one sitting! After you've retrieved one, write it down and file it in a folder or notebook. When you've exhausted your supply of memories, decide what you want to do with them - tell the stories to family members at reunions or gatherings? Put in on a tape for others to hear or see? Write an essay or detailed journal? Create a book based on your life? There are several websites on memoirs that offer questions and areas to explore, and tips on organizing the memories. My favorite is, created by Carol Franco and Kent Lineback, authors of the Legacy Guide (Penguin Group, 2006).

Whether telling or writing your story, remember - it is your story! You can embellish it, add dialogue to it, or do whatever you wish. The important thing is - you need to share your story with family members.

At this point, you may ask why is writing the personal memoir so important? Unlike our ancestors, today few people gather around the kitchen table, or on the front porch, to share their personal stories. Often families are spread apart in different states or countries, and some members don't see their relatives for several years. Many children today know little or nothing about their parents or grandparents. Therefore, it's important to record family history for future generations, so they'll know and understand their background.

As you look to the past to prepare for the future, digging up your own memories is rewarding - it allows you to recall pleasant (and perhaps not so pleasant) stories that you may have forgotten. It allows you to reflect on your own life, and is fun to do!

Enjoy the journey into the past as you reflect on your life. Your family will cherish your memories and hopefully will continue, adding their personal stories to create a full oral history for generations to come.

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