Thinking about writing a memoir? If you’re like most people, memories can be tricky. If you try to remember a childhood experience, odds are your brain has transformed reality into a memory that doesn’t quite align with what actually happened. Or, we’ve completely forgotten those childhood memories. Researchers have been studying what is called “childhood amnesia” for over 100 years, but it’s only within the last decade that they have understood why some childhood memories linger, and others are lost somewhere within the deep recesses of our brains. The research shows that children as young as seven can remember about 60 percent of what happened when they were three years old and younger. But at age eight or nine, they remember less than 40 percent, and it continues to fade as we grow into adulthood.
But what about those early childhood memories that do stick with us? Why do they remain? One factor is whether there is a deep level of emotion involved. If you lost your two front teeth because your sister swung a golf club into your face, and that resulted in a trip to the hospital, you are likely to never lose the memory.
Another strong determinant of whether an early memory sticks is whether a child constructs a story from the event, complete with a time, place, and a congruous sequence of events. The memory remains even stronger and clearer when the child writes it down. Something about the act of telling the story again, even four or five years later when the memory is still present, locks it into brain. As we emerge into adolescence, the stories become important as we knit them together to figure out what kind of person we are.
For those who are writing memoir, the struggle of trying to remember what happened during childhood can be frustrating. If the story you want to tell requires that you reconstruct your childhood, then it may feel like you are writing fiction instead of memoir. What did you and your childhood best friend do after you found the litter of kittens in the woods behind your house? That memory has faded, and you can only remember the pile of tiny kittens lying in the leaves. What happened next is a mystery. That’s the moment you realize that keeping a diary would have been helpful. If you are like most kids, you started one and didn’t finish it, and if you finished it, it’s been lost in the twenty moves you’ve made since age eight.
So, what’s a memoir writer to do? Here are four tips for writing about your childhood when you can’t remember most of it:
- Use photos to jog a memory, or help describe the moment. Thisisn’t cheating, and who knows what else you might find when you dig through those boxes of old photos? That bad haircut might remind you of the time you trimmed your bangs three days before school photos, and the wig you pulled out of the Halloween box to hide it for a week.
- Ask siblings, parents and childhood friends to share stories they remember about you. This is also not cheating. If their story doesn’t bring back your memory of the event, write it from their perspective. It’s okay to include guest narrators.
- Take an object from your childhood and sit with it. Find your old stuffed animal, that favorite book, the ashtray you made in camp – and sit with it in silence. Let your brain focus on childhood so you can travel back in time and see where it takes you. Sometimes, remembering is only a matter of quieting your mind and turning off the chatter. Write down the memories that surface, and see if they fit in your narrative.
- Ask yourself if your memoir needs random childhood memories. Chances are, what you do remember might lead you toward the theme of your story. Do you remember moments of loss? You might write about how the small losses incurred in childhood prepared you for the larger ones later in life. Do you remember details about your grandparents? You might write about the generations of people who helped shape your values.
It isn’t only in childhood that we lose memories, so take a cue from that diary you wish you’d kept. Journaling will keep you from ever having to search for something to write about. We’ll give you tips on journaling for writers in the next post. It’s not as hard as you think!