Over the past few months, I’ve struggled to figure out where to begin my new memoir. There are so many entry points for our stories. In fact, I wrote those words—there are so many entry points for this story—as the introductory sentence in a terrible draft I cranked out for a writing conference. (Insert palm to face!). There are many different ways to begin our stories. Each entry point lends itself to a different version of the truth.
But which truth are we telling? In first drafts, we often don’t know, and so we go with what’s safe—the voluntary memories and rehearsed stories that are easy to recall. We list and outline and timeline these pivotal moments hoping they will turn the chaos of life into some kind of order. But as we write about these memories, we may find many of them are simply the backstory we need to tell ourselves before getting to the good stuff.
In his book The Art of Time in Memoir, Sven Birkerts says that involuntary memory is the gateway to the real past. It’s the place where the juice of memoir gets squeezed to create the hidden narrative of our life stories—the ones readers really care about. If voluntary memories are the ones we go searching for, involuntary memories are the ones that come searching for us.
In the most famous scene from Proust’s autobiographical novel Remembrance of Things Past, Proust eats a small sponge cake called a madeleine and is transported back to a childhood moment in his aunt’s house. Each sensory detail vividly rendered, Proust relives the moment rather than recalls it.
As I wrote and rewrote several beginnings for my memoir, an involuntary memory came to me while I walked my neighborhood. Hot and muggy, the hazy sky reminded me of powdered sugar over a cake—the blue only slightly visible. Sweat drizzled down my back. My clothes stuck to my skin. Suddenly I was twenty, dressed in a borrowed skydiving jumpsuit that reeked of old sweat, grass stains, and fear. I could almost feel the fifty-pound pack on my back. I trotted home and quickly knocked out a draft, knowing from experience that my unconscious was on to something good.
That’s the thing about involuntary memory: it’s the unconscious mind’s way of working things out. UVA professor Mark Edmundson calls involuntary memory the most important tool in your writing toolbox—an aspect of the self that deserves frequent rewards if you wish to put it to good use. But how do you activate involuntary memories for yourself?
- Flip through old photo albums and choose a picture that catches your eye. Study the photograph, look away, then study it again and search for something you haven’t yet noticed. Write about this new element.
- Eat foods from the period you’re writing about and cook recipes that fill your house with familiar smells.
- Pay attention to your surroundings—especially tastes and smells which can evoke the strongest memories. It may be the smell in an apartment you visit as an adult or the taste of a dinner party dessert that transports you to a childhood moment. Schools, churches, hospitals, and other institutions frequently trigger involuntary memories because the smells and visuals are so distinctive.
- Seek novelty in your daily life. This could include activities as simple as starting a walk with a non-dominant foot, eating with your non-dominant hand, or going to a toy store. Novelty forces you to pay attention, and paying attention can lead to big rewards.
- Select a period in your life. Set a timer for fifteen minutes and list all the things you remember. Conscious activation of memory can prime the pump for the unconscious mind to chip in.
- Ask your unconscious for help. Write a formal request and tape it to your door. Read the request before leaving your house, and ask your unconscious what it wants as a reward. Whenever you get an answer—no matter how small—offer yourself the reward.
Once you’ve captured a juicy memory, it’s all about what the hell it means. Jot down the scene to the best of your ability then wrestle with what it’s telling you. Make a list of what it could be about. Go for walks. Create some Venn diagrams. Ask your unconscious mind for help.
The book I’m currently writing is about how traveling with a heavy metal band after my brother’s suicide gave me the courage to carry on. Skydiving was something I did in the years leading up to my brother’s death. While it was cool (you should definitely try it), the memory felt very tangential.
Yet the memory persisted. So I went for more midday walks and sweated, and asked my unconscious for help. One day, I was not only back at the drop zone, sweltering in that nasty old jumpsuit, but I was also face down, suspended from the ceiling by a series of straps during a free-fall training class jokingly referred to as How Not to Die. A big fan of gallows humor, I loved that class—name and all. How Not to Die was the lesson I wished I had taught my brother and the one I had to teach myself. Finally, I had an opening that framed the story I wanted to tell.
My friend, writer Dana Mich, recently attended Brave Magic with Cheryl Strayed and Liz Gilbert. Their advice was to write fast and bad. I would also add, write open. Had I not written that terrible draft for the writing conference and continued to write new ones while asking my unconscious for help, I never would’ve made the connection between skydiving and a central theme in my book. I’d still be trying to tame the chaos of that time period by working with memories as tired and worn as last year’s running shoes. Instead, I get to explore the skies.