What is your earliest memory? What is the memory that always emerges from the dim reaches of your consciousness as the first one, the beginning to this life you call your own? The first memory becomes the starting point in our own narratives of the self. As writers we naturally return again and again to these beginnings and scrutinize them. By paying attention to the illogical, unexpected details, we just might light upon the odd, yet precise images that help our lives make sense. from Tell It Slant, Writing and Shaping Creative Nonfiction, by Brenda Miller and Suzanne Paola
Calling up memories is a critical part of writing creative non-fiction, for most of us who are writing in this genre have stories to tell about our own lives, and we want to mine the depths of those lives to get the best and most valuable information. One of the best ways to access memory is through the senses...sound, touch, sight, smell, taste, feel. We all respond to sensory images - the way a favorite song recalls our first kiss, or how the smell of cinnamon brings to mind Grandma's oatmeal cookies. Writing about sensory memories is also an effective way to translate them for the reader. Everyone responds to these kinds of images, and so when you write about experiences savored with the senses, you're already connecting with your reader in a meaningful way.
Here's an interesting exercise from Tell It Slant that really works to help you call up memory in a new way.
In the preface to his anthology The Business of Memory, Charles Baxter writes, "What we talk about when we talk about memory is - often - what we have forgotten and what has been lost. The passion and torment and significance seem to lie in that direction." What have you forgotten in your life? What are the moments that keep sliding out of reach? Write for twenty minutes using the phrase "I can't remember" to start off each sentence. Where does this examination lead you?
You may find that by using this exercise you can back into the scenes and images you do remember but never knew how to approach. You can write some very powerful essays based on this prompt, exploring material that seemed to dangerous to examine head-on.
This was the first assignment in the creative nonfiction class I've been taking this summer. It seemed odd to think about things I didn't remember, but it worked in terms of helping me "back into" an event in my life that was quite important and that says a lot about my family and my childhood experience.
Try it, and see what happens for you.
You can read the essay that developed from this exercise right here.