Writing a memoir is hard when your memory sucks. Here are a couple of tips that helped trigger my early childhood memories and people and places I had long ago forgotten.
1. Draw a large map of your childhood neighborhood. This will trigger many things and take you back instantly:
Include every detail you can remember, parks, schools, creeks, bridges and any commercial buildings like fire stations, rescue squads, churches or retail stores. Think of monumental trees, trees you climbed or played under, clothes lines and picket (or barbwire) fences. Label road names and note where woods were located, animals were found or signs you remember. Where did you get your hair cut, get ice cream treats, ride your bike? Make notes on places you remember getting hurt or where kids played together. Draw where the ‘weird family’ was located (all neighborhoods have one) and make a note of any families you knew or your parents visited with regularly. In doing this exercise, I remembered meeting a famous actor in our neighborhood, learning to ice skate with my Dad and wrecking my bike on a busy street, all of which I had overlooked in my memory bank.
2. Make a list of your influences.
Write down their names (or titles, i.e., Piano Teacher) and at least one thing that immediately comes to mind when you think about them. Remember to include influences from home, neighbors, kids, school, church, stores, even area animals you encountered. You may have delivery men, ice cream truck vendors, mail delivery workers who you remember. Making this list made me recall the glass milk jars and steel box at our front door where milk was delivered each week, as well as the anticipated weekly Charles Chips delivery that my neighbors shared with me.
3. Do a timeline.
This is helpful in many ways, not only to recall specific details you may have overlooked, but also to incorporate historical influences into your writing. I took a look at every year and tried to list memories from my past, as well as what was happening in the world around me. There will be things you were unaware of that may have impacted your lifestyle, your parent’s attitudes or the political environment in your town. List the top television shows and your favorite music on the charts from that year. Look at any famous people who died and who won the Academy Awards in that year. Research the weather patterns, any remarkable occurrences like tornadoes, volcano eruptions or droughts. Search for historical significance, political issues, religious movements, Union strikes and employment statistics. (In my search, I realized the day I found out who my Birth Mother was shared the same date in history as the re-opening of the Suez Canal after years of closure, which seemed to mirror the flood of traffic in my head and was a good comparison for the discovery of secrets kept from me that same decade).