My Proof Readers have been asking my how on earth I remember so many things about my childhood to be able to write about it so clearly and to include so many important facts, so I thought I’d write a bit about that today for anyone else who is writing their memoirs or autobiography.
The first big thing is that we remember the things that stand out from the crowd, and anything that happens that is traumatic does just that; it stands out and leaves a much greater impression. Sometimes of course these traumas are so huge that our brains actually hide them away to “protect” us, but they are still there. Some of these kinds of memories I do address in my books, but they happened to others in my life who totally believed that their childhood was perfect …. until they realised that it wasn’t.
But for myself and my experiences, where I do remember, the reason that we remember the traumatic things, is because they have such an impact on our lives. This impact is then either so great that it is just something so huge that you can’t possibly forget it, like losing a loved one or moving country or losing a job. But it is more than that. These memories are then reinforced over and over, because so much in our world around us is changed by that event. Moving and losing something are quite obvious, but less other traumas where other than for that event everything else in our lives remain “normal”, the trauma itself is still just so huge that we can never forget it. Even if we try to forget, visual, taste, smell and other sensory reminders don’t allow us to forget and can take us back in an instant.
Long term abuse is the same thing just on a different time scale. Instead of one “major” event … lots of “not so huge” but equally damaging events add up over time, and still leave that mark on our memories.
The thing about writing them down though, and telling the whole story, is that we need to create context, and tell the things that help our story to make sense for those who are reading it. And this requires remembering not only the incident, but everything around it, and the “who” and “where” can be easy but the “when” can be hard to pinpoint. And this is where it becomes tricky in theory as my proof readers have assumed, but I have actually found it quite easy and here is how:
When I started writing my first book I knew the timing of everything not just because I have a good memory and have a bunch of traumatic stories to tell, which are both true, but in the interest of checking my facts and making sure that I was right, I spent a whole day doing nothing but writing out a timeline. I made a chart with the years down the left and then made five or six columns. Column one was the year starting with the year that I was born… easy. Second column was what age I turned each year… again, easy. Then the third column was what year levels I was in at school. This sounds super basic but when you are working out how old you were especially under ten years old, I don’t know about you but I can’t remember how old I was the year I started school for example. But I do know what year level I was in when I had my ninth birthday, and so I started in the middle of that column and put that in, then worked my way both forward and backwards from there. I also remembered what year I was in when I turned sixteen and that correlated so I knew that column three was accurate as well… locked and loaded 🙂
So far I had built a construct that was impartial in all ways, and facts that are set in concrete. Then I went to the fourth column and wrote down from memory and old school photos and documents, who my teacher was in each of those years and looked at the children in my class that year. I have quite a few photos from my childhood but most are not dated and many of the school photos are missing. But there was enough to put some basics into column four that are hard and fast facts. Then other school or other photos can be slotted into the gaps based on clothing, hair styles, all kinds of things. My column four landed up being pretty full other than a couple of gaps which I was happy with.
The fifth column was the big one, and I it contained anything that I could think of that was important. I knew that my great grandmother had died in 1974, and I knew that a couple of major events in my life happened when I was seven, and so I slotted in those things that I know for certain. Major life events, small and big details like braces and injuries and holidays and so on went into this column. Then when I had this solid picture, I was able to pinpoint the less accurate things based around them. For example, at one point in my childhood we went on a holiday where one of my trauma stories happened. I knew that I was somewhere between 11 and 14 when it happened, but wasn’t entirely sure. But there were other things about that holiday that with my chart I could pinpoint: I knew that it was in the January holidays, so that narrowed it down to the month but not the year. A friend came with me and was a peripheral person in the trauma. On the chart I saw that of the four summers that it could have been, for one reason or another three of the four Januaries were ruled out; either she could not have been with me, her hair in the holiday photos could not have grown that much since the Christmas photo that I had with her in it of one of the Decembers, and a number of other things left only one January that it could have been.
It isn’t always that “easy” to narrow it down, but it may not actually matter. If you can’t pinpoint to a month or a week or a day, and there is no change to the story for one or two things to happen slightly out of order or within a time frame that covers a couple of months or years, then it may not really matter. It mattered to me when I told my story because of relevance to other things, but that may not be the case for everyone.
I also worked out that sitting and stewing on something doesn’t help or make it’s date jump out of nowhere. I would move on to other things and place settings, and I often found then when I went back to the things I was struggling with, there were more things that helped. I didn’t always come up with things made me more sure of a date but I often found that when so many others were slotted in, there were no other possibilities left but one.
I wrote my chart simply so that as I was writing I wasn’t having to count on my fingers every time I wanted to know exactly how old I was for any part of the story. But it landed up being way more important and helpful than that. There were stories that I could pinpoint the year because of a certain specially kind teacher that I had or a bad experience at school being bullied… so my intention was that I had something simple to look at every time I wanted to say how old I was, but it turned out that I had a frame work to capture more than that and put things in orders that I didn’t know yet would make a difference to me and my story.
So if you are writing your story and are having trouble with memory, I highly recommend this chart. I spent a day on it, but I also often went back to it not just to get information from it, but to add information. As I wrote, other things came back to me, which I could then add to the chart. As I start the second book now, I have spent time doing the chart for the next couple of decades as I found that first one just so helpful 🙂