Ever since the invention of the camera, photographs have been the primary medium used to preserve memories of everything from new babies and birthday parties to holidays, weddings and family vacations. But non-visual memories typically are lost to the ages, leaving large holes in family histories. What were your mother’s and father’s childhoods like? How did they feel about their jobs? Did your mother have regrets if she didn’t work outside the home? How did they meet? What were the ups and downs of their lives?
Most people never document these stories in writing, and more’s the pity. Having a written record not only leaves a legacy for your family. It also can unlock memories you may have forgotten. It adds depth and dimension to verbal reminiscing as well as providing an opportunity to examine and reflect on your life. Research shows that it can even improve happiness, bolster memory and help you work through trauma.
According to a study reported by the American Psychological Association, for example, writing about negative events not only helps reduce the emotional impact and thereby increase the ability to cope with these incidents but also improves working memory. Another study cited in Psychology Today found that married couples who explored conflicts they were having in writing showed greater improvement in marital happiness than those who did not.
And if you’re a parent, both positive and negative stories can have beneficial effects on your children as well. In fact, studies at Emory University’s Family Narrative Project have found that “bad stories” about events ranging from family illnesses to bullying and financial setbacks do more to immunize children and build resilience than happy ones. Researchers theorize that knowing how family members have successfully coped with challenges increases children’s ability to face their own problems.
The good news is that you don’t have to be a professional writer to set your memories down on (virtual) paper. Here are five simple strategies for revisiting your past in writing.
1. Choose a writing aid
Today’s technology offers a variety of writing platforms to help you organize your thoughts and store them in one place. There are personal blogs, journaling applications, memoir writing software, and reminiscing platforms like JamBios, a free online platform that provides a chapter-style framework to write, share and save the stories of your life. These solutions can give you the structure you need to both simplify and encourage the process.
2. Use memory triggers
When people sit down to write for the first time, they often don’t know where to begin. A prompt like “Who was your childhood best friend?” or “What was the first pet you owned?” can provide direction as well as get the memory juices flowing. The same thing can be accomplished by using prompts like objects or photos.
“A simple question like ‘What’s your favorite book?’ brings you back to that time you were 5 years old and fell in love with Harry Potter for the first time. And then, just like that, you remember. You, stealing ‘The Philosopher’s Stone’ copy your dad had from his bedside table and sneaking behind a couch to read it before he came home,” says one JamBios user. “A small thing like a book straightens my timeline of memories in such a way that, if I try to think as hard as I can about it, I can start recalling some other things from that period of time. And that way, things keep coming back, and back, and back.”
3. Don’t worry about chronology
Recording your memories doesn’t always have to follow a chronological order. Sometimes attempting to follow a timeline can prevent you from writing about what you’re feeling or affect what you’re inspired to share. I’ve learned from personal experience that it’s better to write about a memory or a moment in time as you think about it, even if it’s out of sequence with other memories you’ve jotted down.
Maybe it’s your first car or your first kiss. Your favorite pets or favorite trips. Family holidays or family problems. Write what you want, when you want, and break it up into pieces to avoid feeling overwhelmed by the size of the project.
4. Find your writing sweet spot
Some people write better after their first cup of coffee. Others are more productive midday or at night. Start by recognizing what works best for you. Ask yourself when your words seem to flow best. Is it as soon as a memory pops into your head? Is it when you wake up each morning, or before you go to sleep each night? Try different approaches until you find the one that clicks.
5. Invite others to contribute
Several years ago, my family began reminiscing via a group email. We wrote about an old bar in Boston that my grandfather owned, which prompted an engrossing series of stories from my dad and uncles that many of us had never heard about the barmaids, the keys to the liquor cabinet, and some incidents involving local law enforcement. The more we wrote, the more everyone wanted to share and chime in, and the more we learned. This kind of collaboration, made easy by today’s online environment, helps unearth details you may not remember or may not have known.
Whether you want to preserve your memories for your children or grandchildren or take stock of the highlights and/or lowlights of your life for your own edification, writing about your past can be rewarding. With today’s technology, it’s easy to get started and remain consistent. There’s evidence it improves health and well-being. And if nothing else, it can be a great source of pleasure for you as well as your friends and family.