Mining for Memory Gold: How to Write from Your Experiences

By Rylie Harrison, a professional writing student at Taylor University.

It’s all material.

That’s what I tell myself no matter the situation. Now, that’s not much consolation when you whack your pinky toe on the edge of your desk or walk into a wall after waking up from a hard nap, but it’s true.

Writers have a unique blessing: nothing is wasted on us. Everything that happens to us, from the once-in-a-lifetime to the annoyingly mundane, is useful. But how do we find those nuggets of gold with which to infuse realism and life into our stories?

1. Keep a journal.

This is the simplest way to keep track of where you’ve been.

Journaling provides you a space in which to spill all your uncensored thoughts onto a page. Write about what happened to you on a certain day. Note your thoughts about a not-so-satisfactory meal. Rant about whatever social or political issue gets on your nerves.

Your journal is also the perfect place to record random thoughts, funny quotes people say, awkward encounters, or moments of laughable stupidity. For example, I have several excerpts of conversations in my journal, as well as story ideas and memories of strong emotional moments.

Travel journals can be especially helpful. For ideas about travel journaling, visit this site.

2. Look through photos and souvenirs.

Pictures are a writer’s best friend. A photo captures just enough of a moment to spark a train of thought about a certain event.

As you look through photo albums, try to recall the emotions of the moment. What did the place smell like? Did you get cold/hot? To what degree? What was the most uncomfortable part of the whole experience? What was the best thing? Just ask yourself simple questions as you relive days gone by.

3. Talk to older family members.

These are the people who will remember everything about you. Everything.

Rather than shy away from the horribly embarrassing reality of your past self, glean from the wealth of wisdom and comedy that comes with growing up. You can use funny anecdotes and quirks about yourself to add dimension to your characters. The best part is, your readers will never know it’s about you!

4. Mix and Match.

This is by no means an exhaustive list of ideas, but it should help you get started in the process of unearthing quality material from your own life.

Once you have some ideas flowing, start pulling from different sources to create a scene. In my own writing, I may start with a setting from a picture taken during my semester abroad. Next, I remember a stupid decision or blunder and build off that. Then I can glance through my journal and find a funny quote that could fit the context. Before I know it, I have a vivid scene filled with description, heart, and purpose.

This method takes practice. Just start by writing an isolated scene; don’t worry about the whole story. You will develop an eye for what elements fit well together.

Which of these do you think would work best for you? What other methods of surfacing memories have you tried? Everyone works differently, so comment about what has or has not worked for you.

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