Tapping into childhood memories is an exercise, activity, and skill many writers turn to when generating a fresh story idea. However, after leaving childhood in the dust, the process of digging through the debris for a story-worthy gem is daunting.
How can we wake up our memories?
Sometimes a smell, a place, an event, holiday, or word can bring back a memory. Let’s try it and see what happens. For each word on the list that awakens a memory, write a sentence or two. Include such things as your age at the time of the memory, where you were, who you were with, what you recall seeing, and what you recall feeling emotionally.
Scents: Lavender, cinnamon, lemons or other citrus, pine, wet dog, fresh-cut wood, mowed lawn, chocolate, perfume, new car smell, peppermint, crayons, machine shop, roses, smoke, mildew, incense, popcorn, rain, people have smells, too – Is there someone from your childhood that comes to mind from a particular scent?
Places: Farm, city, train station, airport, grocery store, hardware store, camp, department store, shoe store, movie theater, relative’s house, friend’s house or backyard, garage sale, car ride, farthest place you traveled on vacation.
Holidays and events: Best Christmas because of: present you received, relative that visited, Santa encounter, new outfit, etc…), worst holiday gift you ever received, Valentine that surprised you, the first birthday party you can remember (What made it memorable? Who attended? Where was the party? What gifts did you receive?), sporting event you attended (Who took you? Did your favorite team win? Was the experience better than you expected?), recital, school play, county fair, contest, Halloween, school field trip…
Random words: Can you think of a memory involving any of these? An alarm clock, dresser, back door, basement, attic, doughnuts, bacon, party, new outfit, new shoes, hand-me-downs, present, pet, insects, gardening, hamburger, rainbow, storm, wish, restaurant, stranger, zoo, peaches, carnival, circus, farm animals, lamp, museum, backpack, picnic, hiccups, sneeze, playground, stuffed animal, broken toy, broken bone, rain, stray animal, dentist, snow, first pet, photograph.
How about jogging your memory with some questions? Remember to make note of the place the memory occurred, who you were with, your emotions at the time, and any other details that crawl back.
What is your earliest memory of trying a new activity like a game in gym class, a music lesson, flying a kite, swinging…
Who is the first friend you ever had? How did you two meet? Why did you like being friends?
Who was your favorite teacher? Why does this teacher stand out in your memory? What made this teacher the best?
Who sent you your very first letter? Do you remember how you felt receiving mail? Did you write back by yourself or with the help of a parent?
Did you have a pen pal? How did you get this pen pal? Where did he/she live? What kinds of things did you write to each other about?
What is your earliest happy memory? Feel free to list as many happy memories as you can. Were they happy memories because they made you feel good about your accomplishment(s), made you feel grownup, or made you feel listened to? Is the memory happy because you went someplace you always dreamed of? Or is it a happy memory because you received a great surprise or present you always wanted?
What is your earliest sad memory? Feel free to list other sad memories. Was the memory sad because the incident made you feel ashamed of yourself, sad because you lost something or someone, sad because you didn’t do well in school at an event or on a test, sad because a friend didn’t want to be your friend anymore?
Were you ever jealous of another child at school? What made you jealous?
What did you cherish as a child? (a person, a place, your privacy, time spent with a parent, walks, trips to favorite places, a doll or toy…)
What is your strongest childhood memory? What brings this memory back to you?
Did you ever leave something behind on a trip that caused you emotional stress? (a toy, book, a piece of clothing, etc…)
Did anyone ever surprise you with a great kindness?
What did you like to collect?
What was your favorite meal that your mom or relative made?
Describe your childhood bedroom. Did you have a desk? What did you keep in it? What could you see from your window? What toys did you keep on your bed? What books were your favorites and why?
Could you draw a floor plan of the house you grew up in? List as many things as you can remember being in each room. List as many activities or memories you have from each room. Which room(s) were your least favorites? Which rooms were your favorites?
I hope the words and questions unlock good memories for you. And if you are a writer, I hope those memories make their way into your stories.