How to Use Writing Prompts (and Other Sources) to Mine for Memories

memoirs writing tips Jul 21, 2021
Sources to spark memories

Writing prompts are a great way to get your creative juices flowing when you sit down to do your daily writing. They provide a focal point to quickly generate stories.

For memoir writers, writing prompts can help stir up new stories when it feels like your memory well has run dry. They can be a great device for tapping into different aspects of your life.

Write Your Own Life posts weekly writing prompts on Instagram to offer writers a way to access memories that may be buried deep inside your brain and to give you a starting point for your daily writing. 

For instance, here’s this week’s prompt:

Here’s the story this writing prompt sparked for me. (Warning: My writing is raw and doesn't have a happy ending.):


Every summer, a carnival came to town. The semi-trucks lined up in the parking lot. Day by day, we’d see skids of metal transform into little-kid train rides, floating teacups, a giant, spinning Zipper, a mini-roller coaster, and a midway of games and popcorn and cotton candy stands. The carnival was a rare summer diversion for our family--somewhere to go to break the routine of our otherwise predictable days. I’m simultaneously excited and anxious about the carnival. 

My parents pick a perfect summer night to bring us to the carnival. They buy a roll of tickets and have a quick discussion about how to divide and conquer so they can get all six of us kids onto all the rides. Some of us are too short for the bigger rides. I’m relieved I’m too short for the Zipper or the twirling swings. Honestly, I wish I were too short for the Tilt-a-Whirl too.

But I’m not. My mom, one or two siblings, and I walk up to the Tilt-a-Whirl and immediately get in line. I resist. I don’t want to go on this ride. I feel like I may have been on it once before because I have a deep fear of it. Every fiber of my being does not want to go on this ride. 

I watch as the cars spin fast at the same time the platform tilts. Gravity presses the riders forcefully against the back of the car as it spins and swooshes back and forth, and then it bears off so that gravity momentarily releases and you feel like you’re going to fly out of the car.

My body hates the uncertainty of the spinning. The force pressing me against the back of the car makes me feel like we might fly off the track completely, and the tilting into pressurelessness feels like I’m going to propel forward with nothing and no one to catch me when I go hurtling off the ride.

I can’t calibrate my body. My mind can't rationalize what is actually happening versus what my mind imagines will happen.

Do people think this is fun? I’m terrified. I don’t want to go on this ride.

I implore my mom not to make me go on the ride. I’m on the verge of crying, or maybe tears have already started to flow. She’s agitated. Impatient with my fear.

“You’re going to get on the ride. It’ll be fun.”

“Please don’t make me go on this ride. I don’t want to do this.”

We’re at the front of the line. My mom is holding my hand or gripping my elbow or putting pressure on my shoulder. It’s not a tender, reassuring touch. It’s a pressure to keep me moving in the direction she wants, which is onto the ride. In my memory, she’s gritting her teeth and saying something like, “You’re going to get on this ride.” I want to break free. Maybe I even try to break free. 

The ride stops, the safety bars release, and the riders exit the platform. People are smiling and laughing and probably saying, “Let’s do it again!” Their excitement doesn’t register for me--no clues that the ride might actually be fun.

My heart is in my throat. I want to run. I want to leave my mom. But where would I go? The carnival is big and I would get lost and possibly separated from my family forever. At that moment, my only options are to endure being scared to death or risk being lost.

My mom is dragging me up the stairs. She shoves me into the curved red vinyl seat in the bright yellow car, and she quickly pulls the safety bar down so it locks. I am stuck. I am not excited. I am unprotected. I don’t want to face what’s coming next. I have been forced onto a ride I don’t want to be on. I have no agency. No voice.

Why does she need me to go on this ride? Is this some important rite of passage I can’t afford to miss? Will I be less than a person if I never go on a Tilt-a-Whirl? I don’t understand the stakes of this ride, and my mom is impatient with my fear.

I’m too much. I’m ridiculous. She’s embarrassed by my irrational fear. I’m acting like a baby, and she doesn’t like me because of it.

The gears click into place. The ride is about to start. I feel like I could die from fear. I close my eyes and pray for it to end. I can hear my mom laughing next to me, embracing the spins, the tilts, the force of gravity followed by the precarious release of pressure.

I don’t know what my other siblings are doing because my eyes are shut tight. My whole body is clenched, I’m holding my breath, hoping it will end fast. I don’t want to look and see what’s happening. It may be worse if I see what’s happening. So I put my head down, squeeze my eyes hard, clench every muscle to try to control—or at least bear—the effects of the ride.

How do others lean into the spin? How is this fun for anyone? Adrenaline is coursing through my body, and I’m fighting hard against it. Please let this end. That’s all my brain can think.

After what feels like an eternity, I feel the ride slow. Our rounded car stops forcefully spinning and slows to a smooth gliding back and forth. The ride finally comes to a complete stop. The safety bar releases. The carnival operator lifts our bar, and we step out onto the metal platform and head down the exit stairs.

I am fuming inside while my siblings ask excitedly where we’re going next. Why did my mom force me onto that ride? Couldn’t she see my terror? I tried to tell her. I begged her not to make me go on it. Couldn’t she offer even a crumb of gentleness? Was there any other way she could have helped me try the ride?

My fear is not safe with her. I am not safe with her. My mom is not safe. As we walk away from the Tilt-a-Whirl, I stuff my anger and my fear away. And my voice, muzzled, floats away.


Mining for Memories

Admittedly, this writing prompt didn’t elicit happy memories for me. Riding the Tilt-a-Whirl was actually a traumatic experience in my childhood. I hope carnivals were happier for you.

Along with writing prompts, there are lots of other sources you can tap to spark stories from your past. For instance, recently, I gathered with my extended family to celebrate the life of our Great Uncle Glen, who had died one year to the day of his memorial service. Because of COVID restrictions, it wasn’t possible to have a funeral at the time of his death. Having a year to reflect on his life gave everyone some mental and emotional space to remember—really remember—special moments, experiences, and memories of the role Glen played in their lives. 


The Power of a Well-Written Eulogy

My sister wrote a beautiful eulogy that recounted many of our siblings’ shared memories of Glen: grading papers for his fifth-grade class, spending weekends cleaning his house, making our annual pilgrimage to then-Marshall Field’s on State Street in Chicago for lunch at the Walnut Room under the massive Christmas tree. All of these memories were touchstones of our childhood, and my sister's eulogy for Glen sparked long-dormant memories for many of us.

I've given eulogies at my aunt's and my mom's funerals. The act of writing them caused me to remember deeply the things I love most about these two women, and it forced me to confront the difficult memories too.

Even if you never have to deliver a eulogy at an actual funeral, the process of writing one can be a powerful way to flesh out the people who show up in your memoir. If you're skewed toward only writing about them from one perspective-—say, negatively—writing a eulogy about them may help bring nuance and depth to their character and show a different side of them.


Letters to Remember

Glen’s second wife, Lydia, took a different tack on sharing memories of Glen. She read a series of letters that she and Glen had exchanged during their courtship and marriage. Most poignant was the final letter she received from Glen at the height of his dementia when she couldn’t visit him in his nursing home because of the COVID lockdown.

As Lydia read the letter to us, she stopped periodically to comment on how she could tell Glen hadn’t really written this letter. First, his dementia had long since erased his memory of who Lydia was. She was always a benevolent visitor, but sadly, he no longer knew that she was his wife.

Lydia also pointed out that Glen would never have used the words and turns of phrase contained in this letter. The nurses had written it on Glen’s behalf hoping the gesture would give Lydia some measure of comfort in Glen’s absence. Instead, the letter memorialized the COVID season when Glen passed as well as the depth of love Glen and Lydia shared, which the nurses had witnessed and tried to capture in their letter.

The letters Lydia shared with us provided a snapshot of how they met, how their love grew, and how it endured through even the most unimaginable trials. The letters also highlighted how words exchanged at a moment in time can serve as a deep well of memories.

When Lydia was preparing to sell her house after Glen died, she gave me a pack of letters postmarked from England. These were the letters I had sent to Glen when I spent a semester studying in London during college. Having a chance to read my 19-year-old thoughts in my own handwriting sparked a million memories for me.

If I could have had a brain scan at the moment I re-read these letters, I’ll bet my whole brain would have been lit up. Every neuron felt like it was firing and sparking a chain reaction of memories of the younger version of me; the me that was on an adventure abroad in the midst of a season of deep grief after my dad’s death the year before. The letters are tinged with joy, discovery, loss, and sadness. Between every line is the weight of all I was carrying in that season.

If you’re having trouble accessing memories from a season in your life, try digging up some old letters, cards, and of course, photographs. All of these tangible artifacts are source material for stories to include in your memoir.

What are sources you use to help spark memories for your life story?

Get started writing your life stories.

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