This is the third in a series on moving from memories to memoirs. Click here to read Memories to Memoirs, Part 2.
In part two, we used map drawing to trigger memories about place and time in our lives. In this article I present another technique to release sensory details from the subconscious and bring amorphous memories into sharper focus before writing a scene of the event. I taught a condensed version of this technique in my workshop, “A Legacy of Story,” at the Story Circle Network conference in Austin TX this last weekend, and I call it “Remembering Vividly” because that is what it helps us do.
Before you begin, to help you understand the importance of recovering memories of sensory details, select a piece you’ve written recently. Print it out and highlight every reference to a sensory detail. Which senses are included? Which sense is dominant?
If you’re like most writers the dominant sense is visual. That’s because most of us write “by sight.” That is, we include what we see and, sometimes, what we hear. Rarely what we smell, taste, or feel (as in the sense of touch). If your writing tends to fall within this “mostly sight” category, you may fail to engage your readers. If you want to write vivid memories, then you must learn to remember vividly — not just see, but smell, taste, feel, and hear those memories — as well as expand your sensory vocabulary.
Remembering vividly is best accomplished in a light meditative state, and the practice of remembering takes only from 5 to 15 minutes. Writing the scene will take another 15-30 minutes depending upon the level of detail you include. If you’re on a tight time budget (and who isn’t?), I recommend allowing yourself a minimum 20 minutes to complete this process.
Here’s how it works (read the following directions all the way through before beginning):
- Choose a memory to work with — either from the piece you selected or a different memory. For best results, the memory should be a significant moment in your life.
- Find a quiet, low-lit place where you can relax and not be disturbed. Sit in a comfortable chair or find an alternative comfortable position, close your eyes, and take long, deep breath. With each exhale, release tension in a part of your body, beginning with your toes and feet and ankles and moving all the way up your body until you feel the tension in your scalp and brows relax. Continue to breathe regularly for a few moments.
To shorten the time, take five deep breaths, releasing tension from your entire body with each exhale. Then continue to the next step.
- Keeping your eyes closed, focus inward on your memory as if it were occurring in the present moment. Where are you? What’s around you? Who is with you? What is the quality of light? Pay attention to all the details: colors and textures, sounds, odors (if you can’t detect odors, think about what odors or scents might be present, given your environment), and physical sensations. If there is food, what does it taste like? What is its texture in your mouth?
- Now broaden your perception by turning around in your imagination — slowly, in a full circle. Again, pay attention to all the sensory details.
- Stay in your expanded memory until you feel satisfied you have remembered as much as possible, take a few more deep breaths, and gently bring your conscious mind partway back into the room in which you are sitting. Stay in a semi-dream or meditative state.
- Feeling the memory about you, write a list of all the words and phrases that describe it: colors, textures, sounds, scents, tastes, physical sensations. Don’t analyze or begin to write about emotions — stay strictly focused on the senses.
- When you have completed your list, bring yourself fully into the present moment.
Write Your Scene
Now write (or rewrite) a scene of the moment as remembered, including as many of the words from your list as possible. Slow down, making sure to record every little detail, and give yourself permission to “go overboard” with your description. Writing the scene in present tense will help you stay focused on the actions and concrete details of your memory.
Finally, take a few minutes to write in your journal about this process and what emotions, discoveries, or revelations came to you as you remembered or wrote. Later, you may decide to include some of these reflections in your narrative. For now, I suggest keeping them separate.
As always, I look forward to your comments and questions. Did you try this meditative method for recovering sense-based memory? If so, what happened? Are there other techniques that have worked equally well for you?