Unlocking the Past: Using Writing Prompts to Activate Your Memories

memoirs memories writing tips Apr 18, 2024
writing prompts

My brother and his wife bought the childhood home where my five siblings and I grew up. Whenever I visit, I feel a flood of memories. I can visualize life in our modest-sized house with eight people crammed around the dinner table, vying for space in front of the basement TV, battling over whose turn it was next in the bathroom. Amid all this jockeying for space, I also have fond memories of playing basketball in the driveway with our dad, rollerskating up and down my block, and learning to ride a bike.

My kneejerk response to all these stimuli from the past is to write about them. Visiting my childhood home and walking through my old neighborhood serve as powerful writing prompts. But taking a trip down memory lane in person to get your creative writing juices flowing isn’t always feasible. That’s where writing prompts come in.

Portals to the Past; Pathways to Creativity

What are writing prompts? Simple questions or statements to help activate your brain and give your mind a point of focus to retrieve memories and begin writing. Writing prompts can help warm up your mind and your fingers so you can get into a flow state or writing rhythm, similar to how a pianist practices scales before shifting into working on an actual piece of music, or the way a runner spends the first five minutes or more warming up for a run.

But writing prompts are more than mere warm-up exercises. For memoir writers, they help unlock memories buried deep in your mind, heart, and body. Writing prompts can help you step back into your past and remember some of the finer details of your life stories.

As you allow yourself to re-experience specific memories with the help of writing prompts, you gain access to long-buried moments that shaped you in big and small ways. Writing prompts can open a door to the micro-stories embedded within the larger memoir you’re trying to write, and they can help add color and emotional depth to your writing.

Writing prompts aren’t just portals to past events; they can provide pathways to creativity. By presenting a specific topic or question, they focus your thoughts, often leading to unanticipated areas of exploration or sparking ideas you might not have come across through free writing alone. This focused approach can also help you overcome writer's block, providing a clear direction to move when the blank page seems daunting. Moreover, as you delve into your memories with a guided purpose, the prompts can unveil connections and insights, deepening the narrative thread of your memoir and enriching your storytelling.

6 Tips for Using Writing Prompts

So how can you use writing prompts to help you activate dormant memories and enliven your writing? Here are six tips:

Set the stage. You may want to create an atmosphere that will help stimulate your memory. This can involve finding a quiet place to write, lighting a candle, or playing soothing music—whatever helps you to feel comfortable and relaxed and can facilitate deeper introspection.

Embrace freewriting. Once you have your prompt, set a timer for 10-20 minutes and start writing without stopping. Write whatever comes to mind without worrying about grammar, spelling, or sentence structure, even if it feels disjointed or unrelated. The goal is to keep your fingers moving and unlock subconscious memories. 

Use sensory descriptions. When you're writing about a specific memory, try to use sensory language to bring it to life. What did you see, hear, smell, taste, and feel? Writing about sensory details will help you vividly recall the memory and make it feel more real.

Write in the present tense. When you're writing about your memories, try writing in the first-person present tense. This can make the memory feel more immediate and help you access the emotions connected to that memory.

Be honest and vulnerable. When you’re using writing prompts, write for yourself as if no one will ever read your words. Being honest and vulnerable in your writing can help you access deeper memories and emotions. Free yourself to be as raw and honest as you can be.

Set aside regular time to write. Once you have your writing prompts, set aside dedicated time to write. Make it a routine and stick to it. This will help you develop a consistent writing practice and make progress on your memoir.

Involve others. Sometimes, the memories you are struggling to recall may be hidden within the memories of others. Reach out to family members, childhood friends, or others who may have shared the same experiences as you. Ask them about their memories of a certain event or person, and try to piece together your own narrative from those memories.

Writing prompts can be a powerful tool for unlocking memories and helping you write your memoir. By following these simple tips, you can access deeper memories, write with more detail and richness, and ultimately create a memoir that is both honest and compelling. 

Ready to get started with writing prompts? Download my free guide, 31 Memoir Writing Prompts and start digging for those meaningful memories today.


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