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prepared by
Eleanor Lincoln, CSJ
Women at the Well Ministry, St. Paul, Minnesota
© 2003
A retired professor of English from The College of St. Catherine,
Dr. Lincoln has given numerous workshops on memoir writing.
This online workshop is adapted for your personal use.

two medallions

Part 2: The Gift of Memory and How it Functions

Before beginning Part 2 ask God to expand and deepen your memory: “For you desire truth in my innermost being, teach me wisdom in the depths of my heart” (Psalm 51).


Imagine how dreadful it might be to have amnesia—a loss of memory about who you are and where you come from. The worst aspect of memory loss would be loss of identity. (Almost every one has memory lapses almost daily. These are normal)! But the more serious memory losses of deep dementia and recovery of painfully hidden memories are matters for psychological counseling; these conditions are not relevant to memoir writing for a normal person.

Your memories let you know yourself, especially the deeper memories of the past. (You may not remember what you had for dinner last night, but you remember your first day of kindergarten!). Long-term memories remain intact (unless there is severe memory loss from illness or debilitation). Even people with ordinary senility often have vivid memories of the distant past.

However, with the busy-ness of life, some memories lie beneath the surface and need to be discovered and stimulated. Even a computer has “memory” but needs input to be called forth. Your memoir writing will help you to call forth memories that are beneath the surface.

Everything you know has come in through your senses. Both your mind and your body remember. Sense impressions (sight, sound, smell, taste, touch) create images, and it is these images which form your imagination.

No one completely understands imagination but scientists agree that it stores someplace in the mind an image of every person, place, thing, event ever experienced. Every memory is based on the images in your imagination which were created through sense impressions.

A baby's first language is image. An image in the mind is whatever has been perceived by one or more of the senses. The images in a baby's mind might be:

a brightly colored ball (sight, also touch)
the running of water into the bath tub (sound, also touch)
a bar of soap (smell, also touch)
warm bath water (touch)
apple sauce (taste)

The vocabulary of images build as baby experiences more through the senses. Gradually baby learns to verbalize these sense experiences as she hears words that represent a particular image (ball, water, soap).

Your imagination both stores your memories, which come in the form of sense impressions, and recalls them. Your imagination can also project future experiences (based on earlier experiences).

Think about your imagination as it relates to memory. By getting in touch with sense experience you can often trigger whole series of memories. Your sense of smell triggers memory most quickly.

Take time to imagine these smells: lilacs, freshly-baked bread, cabbage, the floor wax used in your grade school. Do any of these smells trigger a certain memory for you?

***WRITE: Remember an odor (pleasant or unpleasant) from the first early memory you wrote about in Part One. List a few vivid words that will describe this odor. Keep writing and see how the odor triggers more memories.

Throughout our life this language of image is basic to our experience. Sense experience forms memory, and as we have words for these images we can evoke them in our imagination by the word.

***WRITE: Close your eyes and enter the place where that early memory happened. Then list all of the sights, sounds, smells, etc. you now experience as you recall that memory. Stay in the memory as long as you continue to be aware of the sense impressions which that memory created.


Psychologists and linguists say that people acquire skill for remembering significant images and episodes only as they acquire the language skill for later retrieval. Your first “language” consisted of images, but gradually you learned to shape events into a story through words, through language. As you learned the art of shaping images into words, you learned to tell a story through language. And as you shaped the events into this story, you also developed the means of retrieving later the memory of these images-shaped-into-words.

You began to do this some time around the age of three--but earlier if your language development enabled you to put your experience into words sooner than that. In what ways do you remember (or not remember) episodes from these early years?

Psychologists distinguish three fundamentally different kinds of memory:
1. generic memory—not of one episode but of a series of repeated episodes such as going to bed when you were a child;
2. episodic memory—a specific event with a given time and place (e.g. the birth of a younger sibling or when you broke your arm);
3. autobiographical memory—specific memories that we weave together because of some significance to us (one of the “stories” of your life).

Your autobiographical memory began to take root as you began to have conversations (with your self or others) about what happened on a given occasion and how you felt about it.

By age three or four, you probably reached a level of language ability where words became the medium by which you represented the events of life to yourself (rather than through images only). Through language you retrieved memories. Psychologists say that this memory process begins with the images unremembered by you as a baby but taking shape when you developed language skills.

Then you began to value your memories and tell stories about yourself to yourself and to others. Parents and other adults modeled for you how to piece together a memory and articulate an experience with a beginning/middle/end. When you reached the level of language ability where words become the medium by which you represented the events of life to yourself (rather than through images only), you were able to retrieve memories whenever you wanted to.

You also began to structure the events, highlighting the most salient points. Before this stage when you were a toddler you probably could go on with endless and undifferentiated detail, saying breathlessly, “this happened, and then this happened, and then this happened....”

Experts on autobiographical memory now believe that a person's life story is revised as the years pass, with some memories highlighted and others fading to support the current view of oneself.

Penelope Lively in her memoir, Oleander, Jacaranda; A ChildhoodPerceived: A Memoir reflects on her childhood in Egypt. She describes, as well as reflects, on her moments of mere observation: “the young child's ability to focus entirely on the moment, to direct attention upon here and now, without the intrusion of reflection or of anticipation.”

“I am lying on a sofa, knees hugged to my chest, staring at the sofa back, which is a blurry chintz patterned with flowers, large blue and green pansies. I have a pain in my stomach. I trace the petals of the pansies with my finger. The pain comes in great waves, ebbing and flowing, washing through me as though I were in the grip of some tide. Lucy is somewhere in the room, knitting. I can hear the clack of needles. There is just the blurred pansies, and the clicking noise, and the pain” ( p. 21).

WRITE*** List the images Lively describes and the senses which lie behind them. Notice that the entire passage is made up of images.

Images remembered from earliest childhood can begin:
- to connect with one another,
- to demonstrate the relationships of these sensual memories to time (past and present),
- to have meaning,
- to become part of the story of our lives.

Penelope Lively at the beginning of her preface to Oleander, Jacaranda tells the reader that her memoir is “is also a discussion of the nature of childhood perception...” She continues: “I believe that the experience of childhood is irretrievable. All that remains, for any of us, is a headful of brilliant frozen moments, already dangerously distorted by the wisdoms of maturity. But it has seemed to me that it might be possible to take these pictures in the mind - those moments of seeing - and, by turning them into language, to look both at the way in which a child sees and how this matches up with what it was that was seen....” (pp. vii-viii).

Oleander, Jacaranda demonstrates beautifully that uncovering experiences through images is indeed possible. Recollecting the images of your childhood and then re-membering them as an adult are moments of wisdom. Writing your memoir will bring about some truly spiritual moments

WRITE*** Make a list of times/circumstances in your life that are particularly memorable to you now. Choose the periods in your life that you want to focus on particularly. Limit your remembering to a specific time such as childhood, family, school (grade school, high school, or college), work life, marriage, raising children, home and neighborhood, retirement, etc.

Now that more memories are surfacing, ask God to open your mind and heart even more. Pray with the psalmist:

“O God, you have searched me and you know me,
you know when I sit and when I stand,
you discern my thoughts from afar”(Psalm 139, vv. 1-2).

When you are ready, turn to Part 3: The Wisdom of Memoir.

Part 1 Self-knowledge as the beginning of Wisdom
Part 2 The Gift of Memory and How It Functions
Part 3 The Wisdom of Memoir
Part 4 Re-membering
Part 5 Keep Writing!
Part 6 The Story Only You Can Tell: Childhood and Family Memoirs
Part 7 Memoirs of Place; Reflective Memoirs
Part 8 Shaping Your Memoir
Part 9 A Selective Bibliography


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