February 27, 2024

Middesigner

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How To Use Your Five Senses In Writing a Memoir Or Autobiography

5 min read

Did you know that you can evoke memories from all of your senses? Some studies have decreed that being right-brained or left-brained defines your personality. Other studies show that we use both hemispheres to solve problems.

According to Dr. Judi Hollis, Family Therapist and Psychologist, “Our creative and emotional right brains are much more influential. I always recommend less intellectual discourse, and instead more action and emotional exploration.”

Regardless of what side of the hemisphere your memories come from, just know that they are there and waiting for you.

I have the perfect plan for retrieving memories. Close your eyes and call on your five senses for memories. I guarantee, they’ll come! I’ve used this method in my workshops, and once my students have tuned in they can’t stop their pens from going wild. A treasure-trove of memories is just waiting to pour forth, and it’s hard to know where to stop.

This, then, is the easiest way to write a memoir of a certain time in your life, or an autobiography that you can leave for your children. You are giving them a gift. When you ask the question: How did my parents and their parents deal with life. What made them the people they turned out to be? What made me the person I am?

Try these exercises next time you sit down to recall memoirs.

HEARING: Enlist your ears to pick up sounds that might remind you of years gone by: favorite songs, expressions, poems. The haunting whistle of a train in the distance. Did you ever take a trip on the train? To where? What was the occasion?

Think about listening to the radio as a kid. What programs were favorites in your family? Do you remember lying on the rug with your siblings listening to those radio shows? Was there a favorite baseball team you rooted for as you sat staring at the radio, listening to the announcer yell the exciting play-by-play action? Were your parents there? Did you have a sense of family?

SIGHT: Look for items tucked away in drawers or old boxes; things that you might have put away years ago. These treasures will spark memories. Tickets to theaters, plays, ball games. Napkins or a book of matches from some long-forgotten first date. Who was she/he? Old photograph albums. Scan them for people you know, haven’t seen in years. Did they impact your life? What were they like? Where was the picture taken? Old photo albums are a link to your past.

TOUCH: Find old clothes in the back of closets; boxed clothes stacked in the garage that you just couldn’t part with. An old coat that belonged to your mother, father, or a child long moved away. A Mohair sweater that years ago you relegated to a bottom drawer. Touch them with your eyes closed. Feel the memoirs.

TASTE: The hamburger joint you found that reminds you of the “the old days.” The cherry coke you used to sip after school at the corner malt shop that has now made a comeback in the 50s-style diners. Think of who you were with, your favorite outfit, hairdo, friends. What were the favorite songs you played on the juke box while in the malt shop?

SCENT: This is one sense we could not do without. This is a tried and true source for bringing back memories. Animals live by it, humans take it for granted. Yet, without smell, food would have no taste. Imagine a world without the taste of food! What if there was a fire? You would have no warning without smell.

Now, sit down at your computer or pick up your lined, yellow note pad. Close your eyes and breathe in slowly through your nose. Now think back to your youth. Think about the wet grass early in the morning that you loved to run through with bare feet. Breathe in slowly through your nose. Think about how the dirt smelled after a good, hard rain. Breathe in again. Think about how bad your dog smelled after being caught in a good, hard rain. Don’t breathe in!

One thing about the sense of smell is that most people can attach some sort of memory to it. You hear it often: “Oh, what is that smell. It reminds me of when I was ….” Some of us can remember the sweet smell of our father’s pipe tobacco. The smell of our mother when she worked in the kitchen; fried Chicken, oven roasted ham, smells that clung to her as she went about her tasks. Smells when she dressed up to go out on the town with Dad; the cologne that enveloped her as she bent to kiss us goodnight. Comforting smells.

Then take those memories, one by one, and expound on them to enhance your writing memories. Try to associate those memories with another memory. One sentence on the page can go on for ten more pages as you recall smell, taste, touch, sight and hearing, all associated with times in your life. All these memories can be triggered by most of the senses, but brought back easier by the sense of smell.

Try to remember what was happening in the world at the time you’re writing about. What year was it? Open Wikipedia.org on your browser and type in a year. Amazing what you can find if you try. Start with that year on your document. As you write, other memories from that time will bounce off of those memories. More associations. Write down the month, or the season. If those memories take you to another year, start another page for that year.

As you do this, don’t be tempted to edit. Just let your fingers fly and your memories flow. Inhale the smells. Write whatever comes to your mind while you’re in that long-ago room with your family. Don’t stop until you run out of thoughts.

When you return to your story, whether it’s a day later or a week later, go back to those memories and inhale. More will come. As the years progress on your document, you’ll remember more: Your classroom; the smell of chalk, the smell of sweaty kids after recess. You’ll remember kids you played with; the bullies, the buddies. Write it down. All these memories are what made you who you are. They must be included for you to know what shaped you into the person you are. Your children need to know this.

Immerse yourself into the smell: Your college dorm, stale beer, dirty socks and cigarettes. Or dances, dates with great looking guys and corsages that smelled of lavender and gardenias. Memories will flood one after the other. You’ll be surprised at how easy it is to bring up memories from your sense of smell.

Try it and let me know how it worked!

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