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Using Memories to Write Creative Nonfiction

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April 2010
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Yesterday, I finished reading the chapter on Memories from Writing Life Stories by Bill Roorbach. He writers a good chapter on how to unlock memories in order to recall life stories, which can be the basis of personal essays and a memoir. He writes: “One of the curious things about the act of writing is the way it can give access to the unconscious mind.”

I also read the chapter on memories in Tell It Slant, a good creative nonfiction book by Brenda Miller. She writes about the importance of memories, and the five senses of memories.

This article provides a definition of memory, the importance of memory, how to rediscover memory, the fine line between fact and fiction, and how to write about memory.

Definition of Memory

The Psychology Today website states that the following about memory:

“Memory is a crucial part of human identity. Maybe you think of it as just “a record of stuff that happened,” but if you don’t know where you’ve been, you can’t know who you are or where you’re going.

There are several types of memory: memory for events, for facts, for how to do things, and working memory, which holds ideas in our head just long enough to turn them over. They’re all malleable, and they’re all mysterious, which you don’t really realize until they fail you.”

For the purpose of this article, I am defining a memory as anything that you remember from your past.

In writing creative nonfiction, it is the task of the writer to rediscover important memories, make sense of them, and then write about them in a way that is interesting to the reader.

Importance of Memories

In Tell It Slant, Brenda Miller writes that we often seek meaning from our memories, which are often based on random, inexplicable events. She write that memory itself can be called “its own bit of creative nonfiction. We continually, often unconsciously, renovate our memories, shaping them into stories that bring coherence to chaos.”

Memories also help define who we are as human beings and why we are the way we are. It is our memories which define our sense of self. Without memories, you have no past experience. You are continually living in the moment, without any sense of past experience. In writing creative nonfiction, especially a memoir, the writer’s task is to rediscover the important memories.

Often when the writer rediscovers a memory, the writer remembers related memories. The writer’s task is to understand why the memory is important. What is the significance?

But memory can be faulty. Often the writer doesn’t remember all the details, or he gets the details wrong. In this case, the write must rely on emotional truth and fact checking to write the facts as best he can.

Rediscovering Memories

We piece together our memories from the fragments of life’s events that we’ve retained, in order to understand who we are. The difficulty for the creative writer is to recapture these memories and to makes sense of them.

In his chapter on Memories, Roorbach includes three good exercises on how to unlock memories. One of his exercises involves “mapmaking.” To complete this exercise, the writer needs to create a map of his earliest neighbourhood the writer can remember and then add as many pleasurable and unpleasant details as possible. Who lived there? What were the secret hiding places? Who were your friends? For instance, the writer can add the names of streets, people, and places that are appealing.

In the second exercise, Roorbach tells the writer to write a story about the neighbourhood, something that happened to the writer.

Another exercise involves a time line, in which the writer charts all that happened to him/her in a given year.

I completed this exercise. I took the year 1980. In that year, I attended the University of Toronto. I was completing a Library Arts Degree, and majoring in Political Science and Economics. My courses included Political Science, Psychology, American History, and Russian History, and Macro Economics. I often attended the pubs at St.Michael’s college in downtown Toronto. I drove a light blue Volkswagen, like the colour of the sky, which my father had given me. I was dating ,Connie, my first love. We dated for 7 years. I have no idea where she is now. Or who is she is, for that matter. I worked as a dishwasher for Steak n Burger restaurant. In the summer, I worked for Bell Canada, installing jacks for phones in people’s houses. I was still living at home. Brother Brad, was playing for the Kingston Canadians. Brother Ryan was in High School at George Henry. Not sure if he was dating Brenda. My parents were divorced. I lived with my mother. My dad lived in a condo around the corner near Fairview mall. Not sure if he was dating Mary. At the time, Pierre Trudeau was prime minister. The Cold War was making news. And the hostages were still imprisoned by the fanatics in Iran. At that time, I really didn’t know what I wanted to do with my life. Bands like The Police were making music. I don’t remember what movies or books were popular. But I am sure I could find out by searching the Web. In December of that year, John Lennon was assassinated. It was a huge shock to all, and devastating to me. You see, Lennon was my ideal, my mentor, someone who I aspired to be like. It was the day the music died in many ways for me. I was 20, going on 21. I remember all of this from thirty years ago.

What I learned from this exercise is that we have an endless amount of untapped memory. And that once we reconnect with our past, we can remember more and more. Remembering one memory often enables us to remember other things.

Memories as Fact or Fiction

Many personal essays and all memoirs are based on the writer’s memories. But memory can be faulty. Roorbach makes this point explicitly. We don’t remember ever detail. And sometimes your memories are just plain WRONG.

The key points to remember are that the writer must try to get the facts right—to the best of the writer’s ability. Often, this involves fact checking.

Other times writing about memories involves writing about the emotional truth.  This involves gather the facts as best the writer can, but then filling in the details using your emotional truth, what seems right to you emotionally. In other words, if it was true to writer on an emotional level, the writer can write about it as if it is the truth.

And when the writer doesn’t know exactly what happened or cannot remember, the writer must tip off the reader by writing a disclaimer. For instance, the writer could write “to the best of my memory…. I don’t remember….Perhaps this happened…As I recall…Often the writer will need to verify his/her memories by fact checking.

Memories as Metaphors and Similes

In Tell It Slant, Brenda Miller suggests that it is more important to analyze why you remember a particular memory than what you remember. She suggests that you can make sense of a memory by describing it in relation to something else.

You can write about memory as a simile. Some memories are vague, like dreams. Others are vivid, like a photograph. Many memories are not understood, like an abstract painting.

You can also write about memories as metaphors. A diary is a memory. A photograph is a memory. A personal journal is a memory. Home videos are memories.

The task of the writer is to rediscover memories, make sense of them, and then to write about them in a creative way.

The Five Senses of Memory

In Tell It Slant, Brenda Miller tells us that we can evoke different memories from our senses.


The sense of sight is the most obvious way to evoke memories. For instance, when people see a casket at a funeral, it often evokes the memories of loved ones who have passed on. When we look at old photos, memories are evoked. When we watch old TV shows, memories are stirred in our minds.


The sense of smell can evoke memories. For instance, when I smell curry, I think of the time that I was sick after eating this dish. Our sense of smell can trigger an experience.


Your sense of hearing can trigger memories. The sound of music can trigger nostalgic memories. Whenever I hear Stairway to Heaven by Led Zeppelin, I think of my high school dance.


Your sense of taste can trigger memories. For instance, when I drink orange pop, I think of the time that I was ill after drinking a bottle of Orange Crush. When I eat Macintosh toffee, I think of all those time as a boy that I would spend my allowance on buying a box at the local candy store.


Your sense of touch can evoke memories. For instance, when I touch an ice cube, I think of icicles or winter.

Final Comments

Memories provide the details you add to your life story to make it believable and to recreate the experience in the mind of the reader. By unlocking one memory, you can discover other memories and sift through them to find useful, interesting, surprising facts. You can then use your memories to write personal essays, autobiography, or a memoir.


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