How can I remember my past and the people in it better?
June 6, 2015 8:05 AM   Subscribe

What are some good prompts to trigger autobiographical memories of specific events, people, places, things? I can't remember a whole lot about big chunks of my life. I'd like to set some of it down in a kind of memoir (as a matter of personal record, not for anything else).

I'm not necessarily looking to find the objective truth about things in my noggin - I just want to be able to access specific details that are potentially meaningful on a personal level. (Like I know memories are biased from the time they're made, and also that they're constructed under the guidance of contemporary motivations, not "retrieved" as static facts.) I just want to be able to pull out how things smelled and felt at particular times, and specific exchanges with specific people.

What I'd like to do with these when I get them is write them down. A) because I'm in my late thirties and have lost a lot of my family already (I have an older parent), and will lose more of them. I already can't remember things about them, which to me is like a second death. B) because I'd like to impose a sense of continuity on my own life. I've lived in a few cities and the only thing connecting those lives is the fact that my body experienced them. I can only really remember many details at all about life in the last city I lived in, which I left five years ago.

I'm kicking myself for being too lazy to do this in my twenties, when it felt urgent and when all these details were vivid and to hand.

I can look at my old journals, but I journalled sporadically (sometimes on bits of paper or in crappy, now unfindable spiral notebooks) and not always with the notion of wanting to capture things in mind. There are few people I can reminisce with about events from early life (my brothers also don't remember much) or even later bits. (I do have a good friend from high school with a mind like a steel trap, she's got most of the early 90s on lockdown, thankfully.) No one for the period between then and now.

Photos, I've got, but kind of mistrust, because I think they're liable to freezing and organizing things around that particular snapshot.

Grateful for tips, as well as books and other resources. Thanks!
posted by cotton dress sock to Grab Bag (7 answers total) 31 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: I cannot recommend Lynda Barry's Syllabus, Picture This, or What It Is highly enough.
posted by Juliet Banana at 8:13 AM on June 6, 2015 [12 favorites]

For archiving your reflections, I would recommend Evernote. It's available on every platform ever, can support text, audio, and even understand the words in photos. Plus, for the basic level at least, it's free, and premium pricing isn't too steep. There is a bit of a learning curve, but once you get used to it it becomes your secondary brain.
posted by Tamanna at 8:55 AM on June 6, 2015 [2 favorites]

This isn't exactly what you're looking for, but if you're already using digital storage things like Facebook, Twitter, Foursquare, etc there are apps that will show you what you were doing a year ago (e.g. TimeHop). My friends use this and it's nice to reflect on what we were doing a year ago (hey, last year this time we were in Hawaii!)
posted by Adamsmasher at 9:46 AM on June 6, 2015

Seconding Lynda Barry. She has students enter their memories by having them recall specific objects from the past--a particularly doorway, a certain pair of shoes, a first car, a childhood phone number, then placing themselves back in that space where the item was located. I imagine her book Syllabus has such exercises. Here's her website. If she gives a workshop in your area, by all means go and you will find your childhood.
posted by Elsie at 10:17 AM on June 6, 2015 [3 favorites]

I have an absurdly poor autobiographical memory — in that I do not often *spontaneously* recall my past. I don't have have a second inner life running in my head, in a visual or audio way, as most people do. I'm very present and future oriented. However with a direct cue, like hearing a conversational prompt or seeing an object, I can easily pick up the thread... perhaps your memory works the same way!

1) Make more triggers
2) Develop your recall and mental imagery skills by force
3) All mediums are but forgeries of the original. Don't let mistrust put you off!

Practice. People who are good at remembering spend *a lot of time* remembering. They do it so often that it's become a seamless and integral part of their day. What are you doing instead?
posted by fritillary at 4:27 PM on June 6, 2015 [1 favorite]

Could you get a book on how to conduct oral histories, and then use the techniques on yourself?
posted by chickenmagazine at 6:48 PM on June 6, 2015 [2 favorites]

If you sit down and just start writing about a specific event in your past, you may surprise yourself with what comes flooding back. Write about a particularly memorable event, and put it in the context of what was a normal day for you then. For instance, if you once fainted at school, write about the stuff leading up to that: getting up to go to school that morning, feeling a little weird at breakfast, arguing with your siblings, what you'd see on the trip to school, etc. You'll find that there's a lot of stuff you haven't actually forgotten, you just haven't had any need to think of it for a long time. That's how it works for me, anyway.

It may also be helpful to look at Google street views of your old streets. A lot has probably changed, but a lot is probably much the same. Try following a route you used to travel all the time.
posted by Ursula Hitler at 3:49 AM on June 7, 2015 [3 favorites]

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