Memories are practical and efficient things, serving us when we want them. We don't lose them; they just go to sleep until something pokes them awake. Recently I read the memoir of a writer who had grown up in New England, as I did, at about the same time as I did. Her experiences of being in college, listening to the music, watching the TV shows, wearing the clothing and hairstyles, knowing the weather, and the smells and sounds all felt so familiar. And as I recalled from her text how the mosquitoes came out at dusk and how fresh-cut hay smelled in summer, and how the frigid winter air dried your nose the moment you inhaled, and the sound of music wafting across a college quad once spring blossoms, other memories emerged which were uniquely mine.
I also remembered that when I was four or five, I'd slip into bed beside my mother every morning and slide my arm under her neck. I remembered sitting on the back stoop of my grandmother's house after supper, lingering over a Pepperidge Farm cherry turnover while crickets sang in the field across the road. I remembered the the places in the arms of my grandfather's chair where the varnish had worn away, the flavor of water drunk from a garden hose, and that I used to imagine our neighborhood, which was laid out in an oval, was one giant merry-go-round.
Whether we write for kids or adults, whether our stories are set in reality or a different world, the present or the past, details like these are what infuse our stories with authenticity and personality. But how can we coax those sleeping memories awake, especially if they've been snoozing for years? Here are some ideas:
- Listen to music from that time in your life.
- Look at magazines or catalogs from that time. Paging through old Sears catalogs, which I buy on ebay, often trigger my memories.
- Find smells from that time. Old Spice reminds me of my dad, and the original Avon face cream reminds me of my mom.
- Ask someone who was with you then, like your sister or brother or cousin or best friend, what they remember.
- Sit with a notebook and pen and write a list, or draw a bubble diagram as fast as you can of a particular place or person or event.
- Read a diary or journal you kept, or letters you or someone else wrote at that time.
- Read your favorite book from then. Recently I reread A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, which a teacher had recommended to me. Although reading it as an adult gave me a different perspective from when I was young, I also remembered how particular parts of the book had impressed the young me.
- Visit a place you lived in or visted often. It's astounding how much you'll remember--details will fight each other for your attention.
As your memories awaken from their deep sleep, you'll discover this very cool thing that happens--they appear as fresh and new as when they first happened, without the tarnish of use.
What do you do to spark memories for your stories?