From Journal to Memoir: The Floorplan of Your Mind

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 ten of this series, Dr. Jacobs moves on to the beauty of memory. See earlier posts in the From Journal to Memoir series here.

Capturing a memory with the intensity of feeling we had at the moment it occurred is difficult to do and yet crucial to telling our stories. The first thing to acknowledge is that no one has ever experienced the same moment in precisely the same way. How many times have you had a conversation with a sibling or friend who was with you when something happened and yet when you recall it in conversation, there are many differences in the way you remember the event?

Your mind and emotions are unique and every memory is made up of the more or less objective facts of the event as well as your subjective reactions to it. As Salman Rushdie has written, “Memory . . . selects, eliminates, alters, exaggerates, minimizes, glorifies, and vilifies also; but in the end it creates its own reality, its heterogeneous but usually coherent version of events; and no sane human being ever trusts someone else's version more than his own.”

My point here is not about comparative memory but about capturing the individual place, time and feeling that is most relevant to you. Sometimes we can best “see” a moment in the past through visualizing it. There’s no doubt that an image -- that woman in the supermarket who looks like your second-grade teacher, the student in the front row who could be your cousin, or the façade of the movie theater you first went to as a child -- can bring memory cascading back. Sometimes these memories are unbidden, and we might even think of them in the same category as we might moments of déjà vu. But the great and surprising truth is that you can also construct a situation where strong memories can be summoned.

Memories are evocative, yet slippery, and for that reason it is helpful to ground yourself in two ways -- through memory and through visualization.

Writing Exercise: Even if you don’t think you are good at visualizing, this can be made easier by using your rudimentary drawing skill. There is no need to be Michelangelo to make a rough floorplan of the house or apartment where you grew up or where you lived at a significant time in your life.

This exercise begins with making that drawing. Once you have it, take a mental walk through the rooms and write down what you do and see as well as the associative thoughts that come up. Write down every move you make in the present tense, opening a door, peeking around a corner, what you see and how you feel until you come to what you think is a logical stopping point, perhaps when you arrive at your destination. In a way, you are creating a small story about a moment in time.

You might want to try a dry run in your current home in the present just to warm up this skill. Here’s a mini warm-up I wrote not too long ago that took the form of a prose poem:

I open the door to my study,
The desk is piled high with unanswered mail,
Too much for me to deal with today
I close the door softly
Not wanting to awaken my guilt.

It’s not a good poem, but it did uncover something more for me to write about. At other times I have placed myself as a child in the kitchen cooking with my mother, or going to the basement of our house on my own for the first time.

You may realize when doing this kind of writing that you uncover experiences or feelings that are absent from your conscious mind. A “walk through” memory entry can bring up the truth of William Faulkner’s statement that “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”