The beginning of a new year is a good time to reflect on not only the memories of the year prior, but the accumulation of memories that define who we are. Certain milestones, natural and manmade disasters, joys, triumphs, and crises are all considered emotional experiences that help mold who we are and what we consider to be our identities.
In fact, our memories and experiences set us apart from everyone else and some memories have more powerful impact than others. When it comes to painful memories, in the filing system of our minds, some memories will just not go away, for example those intense ones associated with loss and illness.
Memories Are Unique
As a memoirist, the aspect of memory has always fascinated me. During graduate school for my MFA in writing, I examined the interplay of memory and imagination and how memories are processed. In my thesis, I compared two memoirs, Eudora Welty’s One Writer’s Beginnings and Mary McCarthy’s Memories of a Catholic Childhood.
I quickly learned how inaccurate our memory can be and how two people can encounter the same event but remember it completely differently. This often happens among family members when recalling experiences from years gone by.
Not only is each person’s perception of a situation unique, but sometimes the imagination gets braided into the actual memory. Thus, we may no longer be able to distinguish reality from what we made up or what we convinced ourselves to be actually true.
Researchers have found that truthful or honest memories tend to be sharper or more vivid, and have more visual images and sounds associated with them. For example, I have very clear and vivid memories of my wedding day 35 years ago, the birth of my three children, and other poignant milestones.
Types of Memory
There are three types of long-term memory systems — implicit, explicit, and emotional. Implicit memories are unconscious, prompted, and non-intentional. They apply to various skills or performing an activity such as riding a bike.
Explicit memories are spontaneous and remembered consciously. These are fact-based memories and apply to personal experiences, episodes, and events.
Emotional memory tends to be vivid and intentional. It is also the long-term memory system that most applies to writing a memoir, because it encompasses both conscious and unconscious remembering.
Emotional Memory and Memoirs
Autobiographical memory is what we remember about our own past experiences. Memoirists typically have access to highly emotional memories and these are what make a memoir compelling to read. Other factors that make a compelling memoir include a strong story line with a beginning, middle, and end, and memorable characters who somehow change the beginning to the end of the book.
Some of the most popular memoirs are about those who face situations with high stakes and who endure emotional experiences, which many of us can relate to. Powerful memoirs also offer some sort of universal truth even if someone’s particular story is highly unique.
I was once honored to hear author Joshua Foer speak about his book, Moonwalking With Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything. His innate wisdom, stellar communication skills, and confidence were quite memorable. At the time, he was only 30 years old and exuded so much wisdom.
We Care About Memory
I was reminded of how the subject of memory is of interest to both young and old. The young want to use it to its maximum, and the old want to hold on to all they have previously learned. During his presentation, Foer confessed that even though he won a memory championship, he did not remember most of what he learned in college.
He said that memorizing does not necessarily help us remember information long-term. He said that what we tend to remember is what is most important to us. He claimed that when learning something new, it is good to “tag it onto” something you already know. By the time we turn 60, we do have a nice collection of memories and realize that this method is an easier way to remember and learn.
This might be a good time to put all your memories in one place. Maybe consider journaling or writing a memoir. Consider checking out my book, Writing for Bliss and Writing for Bliss Companion Journal. Both these books can help you on your journey.
What is the state of your memory? How do you take care of it? Do you often realize that you remember events differently from others? What is your favorite memoir?
Let’s Have a Conversation!