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Better Than Writing Prompts – Five Tips for Creating a Memory List

As people are writing a memoir they will sometimes say, “I want to write my stories but I have forgotten so many details. Is there any way I can get them back? Should I use writing prompts?”

There is one tool above all others that makes the experience of life writing successful. That tool is not a writing prompt: it is the Memory List. No other exercise opens up the process of life writing as quickly and as surely as the thoughtful and thorough compilation of such a list. It’s simple, and as a first step, it’s crucial.

Let me tell you about the Memory List (a general term for your list of memories).

Your Memory List is always a work in process because the more you remember and jot down, the more you’ll recall. You will return to and rework your list again and again as you write your life stories. In short, it will serve as an excellent writing prompt without being a writing prompt.

1. The Memory List consists of short memory notes (three to five words is sufficient) of people, events, relationships, thoughts, feelings, things—anything—from your past.

The list is usually random and always uncensored. Each line lists a different memory. When you write a different memory, start a new line. Do not feel compelled to write in full sentences. (In fact, I urge you not to write in full sentences!)

A caveat: Be sure to include enough information so that the jotting brings up a clear memory even after a number of months. “Hat,” for instance, is not likely to ring a bell next year while “Aunt Mae’s wool hat” probably will.

Let go of the need to have items be important. The green stage coach wallpaper in your bedroom will probably only rate an introductory phrase in your memoir, but it deserves space on your list.

Your mother’s death will likely fill a whole chapter in the book and you will want to do a whole Memoir List of her illness and death. This list can include hundreds of items.

2. Let the logic of creating the Memory List writing prompt be internal.

Do not force yourself to be chronological (“everything I did when I was sixteen”) or thematic (“my father,” “my best friends in high school”), and do not strive for cause-and-effect relationships (“because this happened, that followed…”) unless the memories come that way spontaneously.

The subconscious has a way of being erratic but it is also organic in this way Do not impede its logic. If you let it, the subconscious will be generous to you in filling out your Memory List.

3. Do not censor your memories.

As soon as you find yourself thinking something like “Is this really important enough?” you are censoring your memory and compromising your Memory List.

Censoring can result in a list that is less comprehensive because you my resolve to include only “important” memories. Censoring can result in lists that are less useful to you as a lifewriter than it would be if you allowed yourself to be free-flowing and uncensoring of “unimportant” memories.

Let yourself go where your imagination (a good friend of your subconscious) takes you. Little memories could open up important memories. (See #2 above.)

4. A Memory List includes both big items and small ones.

Any of the following are “on target” such a list:

– Brother Stan died.
– Green wallpaper-stage coaches and buttes.
– Sister Marie Gertrude fell on stairs.
– My parents divorced.
– Blue Schwinn bicycle.

The list is for you, and you’re the only one for whom it needs to have meaning. No one else will see it unless you share it. Include enough data to make the notes understandable to you at some future time. Don’t fall into the trap of writing something cryptic like “cap.” In a month’s time, you may not remember which “cap,” or whose, you were remembering. But, if you wrote “Bob’s Red Sox cap/1970,” it is likely you will have enough of a cue to recall what you meant.

5. The Memory List ought to be fairly long.

It is not unusual for a writer to spend two or three weeks or even months compiling it. You will find yourself adding to it regularly in the months ahead as more and more memories come to you. As a writing prompt, the Memory List cannot be beaten.

This Memory List will go in your three-ring binder. It will serve as your source of writing inspiration and be a tremendous time saver. Whenever you sit down to write, you won’t need to spend time coming up with a topic. All you have to do is pick an item on the list and write about it. (Write everything you remember about the “blue Schwinn bicycle” you mentioned on your list.) With your Memory List, you need never again have writer’s block. With an extensive list of memories to pick from, you will always have readily available writing prompts.

The Memory List is written about extensively in my Turning Memories Into Memoirs / A Handbook for Writing Lifestories. The book is available in hardcopy and ebook.

Doesn’t compiling a Memory List seem a better way to write rather than depend on external writing prompts, something urged on you by someone else? I welcome your ideas. I always write using a Memory List.

Whatever you do today, write a bit on your memoir.

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4 Responses to Better Than Writing Prompts – Five Tips for Creating a Memory List

  1. Avatar
    terry September 8, 2013 at 12:37 PM #

    I don’t have a smart phone, but the cell I have is smarter than me. It has a “to do” function under “tools”. When I have a memory I summarize it in a few words and its there when I sit down to write.


  2. Avatar
    Charlotte Hyatt December 23, 2015 at 6:44 PM #

    Hi Denis,

    I began a blog,, as a memory list. Getting a temporary job was a boon for my finances, not so much for my blog(:. By the time the job ended I had neglected the blog so long I just forgot about it; I never went back. This article reminds me I need to start it up again.

  3. michelke monet
    michelke monet October 22, 2017 at 1:38 PM #

    yes. i looove this and am using it nw with my memoir

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