Memory and Memoir: What One Tells Us About the Other

by Matilda Butler on January 8, 2014

Writing Prompt LogoPost #185 – Women’s Memoirs, Writing Prompts and Life Prompts – Kendra Bonnett and Matilda Butler

Welcome to 2014 and Our Second Blog of the Year

Matilda Butler and Kendra Bonnett, co-authors of the award-winning Writing Alchemy: How to Write Fast and Deep, invite you to join our memoir community this year. So many of you are already using our revolutionary writing approach — Writing Alchemy. Many thanks. Your stories of writing success excite us.

This year we will continue to share advances in the uses of Writing Alchemy. Be sure to tell your friends. In addition to serving as conference speakers, face-to-face teachers, and online coaches, we use Skype with groups and would be glad to speak with your writing group.

Let us know what we can do to help you use Writing Alchemy more effectively in 2014.

Memoirist as Mental Time Traveler

If you are writing your memoir or even reading about memoir so that you can get started in 2014, then a number of questions and concerns may have occurred to you. For example:

– What if I can’t remember accurately the stories I want to relate?

– Why do I remember stories of my history differently than my siblings?

– Why am I “so sure” of a story only to find out that I don’t have the facts right? Does this mean I shouldn’t write my memoir?

When you engage in writing autobiographical stories, you turn yourself into a time-traveler. You wander around in the past recalling and making sense of what happened to you. The past happened and yet our memories of it can be faulty. Or are they? Some studies show that if you knew it once, you probably still know it. The problem comes when you want to retrieve it.

Let me give an example. Let’s say that ten years ago you went to Disneyland. Today, someone asks, “When was the last time that you went to an amusement park?” You respond, “Never, I don’t really like amusement parks.”

How could this exchange take place?

Let’s continue. Your friend says, “But I was positive that you told me you took your grandchildren to Disneyland.” “Oh sure. I love Disneyland. We’ve been back several times over the years. I just never think of it as an amusement park. It’s so much more. It’s a world of fantasy.”

So the problem was not one of memory, but one of storage and retrieval. You put that visit into a store that was quite specific. It was your Disneyland Store. When the question asked about a broader or bigger store–the Amusement Park Store, you didn’t immediately recognize it. You and other family members may store the same episodes in different stores. And the store you put it in, if large enough and filled with many items, may partially transform the memory.

And what if you had never been to Disneyland? If asked about it, you might say something like, “Oh, I’ve never been there, but it’s in Anaheim, California and was built by Walt Disney. There’s also a Disney World in Orlando, Florida.”

What the example reveals is the concept of two different kinds of memory.

Memory and Memory. It’s Not All the Same

Recently, I’ve been reading about memory and thought I’d share a little of what I’m learning because it reflects on memoir writing. Endel Tulving, originally from Estonia, has conducted research on memory through a long career. First, we all know that we have long-term memory and short-term memory. When we write memoir, we draw on both, but primarily our long-term memory. Tulving demonstrated that within long-term memory, there are two different types of memories — episodic and semantic.

Episodic is all of our autobiographical memories that are bound in time and place. They provide the basis for what we choose to write and what we recall about the memory. For example, the Disneyland example above comes from episodic memory. If you have been there, then your “memory” is based on actual experiences — episodes. How you have stored a memory like that (”took grandchildren to Disneyland and had a great time” or “took grandchildren to an amusement park and thought it was a waste of money”) will influence how you are able to retrieve the memory.

With semantic memory, you draw on the many things you have learned but have not directly experienced. You’ve never been Santa Clara, California’s Great America Amusement Park, but you read an article a couple of years ago about some of the fantastic rides there and are aware that reviewers raved about the Drop Tower — a tower that is 22 stories high and once you are taken up to the top, you are then dropped straight down. Semantic memories are probably more influenced by the context of your semantic networks and less influenced by emotions because the knowledge may have been acquired in a more neutral environment.

Back to Memoirist as Mental Time Traveler

In what ways can this information help us as memoir writers? Let me make five suggestions:

Memoir Tip #1. Your readers have had similar experiences to the ones you are writing about. They may have been to similar places. The operative word here is “similar.” You can make your specific experiences and places and emotions come to life for your readers by helping them to evoke the physical and sensory images that they have stored away. You want to help readers use their own episodic memories to better imagine the particular scene you are describing.

This gives you a shorthand for descriptions. If you can evoke the reader’s own experiences with swimming pools, then you have much less writing to do in order to show the particular swimming pool in your story.

Memoir Tip #2. Use “family” memory to help flesh out stories you want to tell. Others in your family will have placed their episodic memories in different stores and therefore may be able to recall (retrieve) elements that you don’t remember. Their remembrances may help to trigger your own memories.

Endel Tulving tells the story of teaching a class. He suggested that once something is known, it still exists even if the person doesn’t remember it. When a student questioned him about this assumption, he devised a small experiment. During the class break, he came up with a list of 20 words that fell into different semantic categories. Then he read the list to the students and told them to write down as many of the words as they could recall. On the average, students remembered about a dozen of the words although different students recalled different sets of words. He picked up the paper of the student who had questioned him to see which words were missing. He said, “One word was a color.” And almost before he could finish the sentence, the student said, correctly, “Yellow.” So the student did know and had stored it. But when trying to replicate the list, the student couldn’t retrieve the word yellow until the Color Store was evoked.

Everyone in memoir writing knows that the way you tell the story and your reaction to your life narrative is unique to you. You don’t have to agree to someone else’s version. But it is useful to embrace the various versions while you are sorting out your own reactions.

Memoir Tip #3. Get your arms around the way that time and place work together. You remember being in a place at a particular time and yet time doesn’t exist in isolation in the physical world. Time is in many ways an invention of the mind and therefore is subject to being influenced or transformed by other experiences. It’s helpful to use other people’s (including historians) episodic and semantic memories to fill out the story you are telling.

We have a receptor for place — our eyes. However, the body doesn’t provide a sensor for time.

Memoir Tip #4. Use the stories from your episodic memory to remember the past and share your narrative but acknowledge that it is equally important to use your stories to help you imagine the future as that gives you power over shaping it.

Memoir should be more than looking back and making sense of our life history. We can use memoir to invent our future.

Memoir Tip #5. The more you write the more you will remember so let 2014 be your year of writing. I especially like the way that Endel Tulving explains that “memory is like the wind that is not blowing or the music that is not being played by the piano.” There still is wind and there still is music. It just might not be “performed” at a certain time. Writing helps you perform your memories. It releases the wind and plays your music.

If you are interested in learning more about episodic and semantic memory, below is a link to an hour-long interview with Endel Tulving from 2009.

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Becky Povich January 12, 2014 at

Thank you Kendra and Matilda for this amazing post! I learned so much about a lot of this while I wrote my memoir. One of the most surprising was that my brother Mike, who is only 15 months older than me, had practically no memories of our young childhood. Reading this post gave me a possible explanation: His memories are stored in a different “store” than mine!

Matilda Butler January 12, 2014 at

Hi Becky: Thanks for your spot-on comment. When a sibling has different memories, we begin to wonder if we are the ones in the wrong. Instead, this research helps us to better understand how differences occur.

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