From Journal to Memoir: Capturing the Past Through Sense Memory

Biographile's From Journal to Memoir with Dr. Rita D. Jacobs

Editor's Note: In this multipart series, Signature and Rita Jacobs, PhD, will walk you through finding the inspiration and motivation to start – and keep – a journal, and will later offer some approaches to transforming journal entries into memoir. In part nine of this series, Dr. Jacobs moves on to the beauty of memory. See earlier posts in the From Journal to Memoir series here.

Fleeting moments of memory – an image, a lingering thought, the sight of someone who reminds us of someone else – are like quicksilver, strongly felt but difficult to capture. But for a journal writer, especially one who is looking forward to mining the journal for memoir material, it is critically important to figure out ways to sustain those moments in order to explore them.

Novelist Kazuo Ishiguro has written, “Memories, even your most precious ones, fade surprisingly quickly. But I don’t go along with that. The memories I value most, I don’t ever see them fading.” I go along with the first part of his statement, but I see the second part as somewhat misleading or perhaps simply too optimistic. I think many of us tell ourselves we will never forget something that touches us when it happens, from a clever thing a child says to sitting by a loved one’s death bed, and, indeed, we probably remember the effect of the moment without the details. But it is in writing the details that we get to relive and in some ways refine the memory.

As William Maxwell has said, “What we, or at any rate, I, refer to confidently as a memory – meaning a moment, a scene, a fact that has been subjected to a fixative and thereby rescued from oblivion – is really a form of storytelling that goes on continually in the mind and often changes with the telling.”

So this week, I’d like to work on telling – actually writing – about memory in a particular way. I say this because in the next few weeks, this column will be dealing with writing memory in a variety of ways.

There are several good techniques to pin down what seems to be ephemeral or fleeting and perhaps even to circumvent the selectiveness of your memory – a bit like killing the internal editor. For that reason I’d like to focus on the role of the senses in helping to detail memory and, for today’s exercise, to zero in on the sense of smell because it is the most evocative of our senses in bringing back emotional recall. The sense of smell is a chemical response to odors and is remarkably primal. Many people ignore the primitive nature of smell but clearly recognize it when reminded that even as children they could identify a parent’s or sibling’s pillow by the way it smelled.

Taste and smell have always played a role in memory and the writing of memory. Even those who have not read Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past may be aware of the iconic moment where Marcel is transported to the past by the combination of tea and petit madeleines – “And suddenly the memory revealed itself.” Capturing a  revealed memory is one of a journal writer’s goals.

Writing Exercise: “Nothing revives the past so completely as a smell that was once associated with it.” –Vladimir Nabokov.

Sit quietly and run a number of images though your mind trying to focus on a specific smell. For some people this will be easy and a smell arises quickly. For others, you may have to prompt yourself – to your grandmother’s kitchen, to the seashore, to the zoo or circus or to your first love’s cologne. Once you have the smell, begin to call up the sights, sounds and people around you in your mental snapshot of the moment. Then bring the focus to yourself, how old are you, how do you feel, etc. Zero in on details and spend three to five minutes in that time and place. When you open your eyes, write that scene in the PRESENT tense, capturing every detail you can.

When you’re done and you reread the entry, you may find that your writing is more vivid than you expected.