Writing Exercise: What is Memory?

girl with book :: ermin celikovic

Each Wednesday, I will be posting a writing exercise or prompt. Designed to inspire your muse, push the edges of your craft, and deepen your practice, these prompts will challenge your thinking and excite your writing mind.

I have always wondered who created the first memory.

We can examine the biological and psychological components of memories: we store things, encode them in our DNA and our brains, and we recall them at will -- unless some loss or injury prevents that recall. But what exactly is a memory?

I have moments of remembering from as young as age three. Distinct, powerful experiences that have shaped my entire being. But there are other things -- the scent of a bygone lover, the way the ocean feels against my skin, the sound of coyotes howling in the distance -- that I struggle to recall. Memory isn't something we can touch or hold. Memory is an act of faith.

Faith that our minds and our bodies can work together to re-create a moment that has already passed. Faith that our recollection can be translated into words and metaphors and put onto the page. Faith that someone else, reading about our memory, can be transported to that exact time and place through our retelling.

When I think about writing our stories, writing our truths, I often struggle with the fear that memory has failed me. Sometimes there is the luxury of referring to old journals or blogs or emails. But what happens when we sit down to tell the memory of a moment that we cannot reference outside ourselves?

I invite you to sit down with a journal, your computer, an audio recorder. However you choose to take words from your head and heart and transcribe them. Set a timer for 20 minutes. Clear your mind of the rest of the day, letting go for a short while the to-do lists and the laundry and the errands to be run. Focus on the sensation of breathing, the soft inhale, the whistle exhale.

Open your mind to a memory. Any moment, the first thing that shows up. Using your transcription tool, begin to record the memory. Sights, sounds, smells. Who is with you (if anyone)? What do you hear? How does your body feel in this moment of remembering?

The key to remembering with clarity will be to trust. Do not grasp at the pieces of your memory. Slow your breathing, turn your focus toward only that moment. Be there, once again. Deepen with tenderness. Find the space for compassion toward your experience. And write until the timer goes off.

When the timer rings, put away the memory. If it was traumatic, or upsetting, take a moment to come back into your body in this day, at this time. Root yourself into the skin you inhabit now, for it is likely not the same skin as the memory you conjured -- every 27 days, your flesh is new again. Wen you have returned to the now, continue about your day. This free writing can be used to fuel future creative work. And this experience, of simply journeying into one moment of memory, can be repeated innumerable times.

If you are willing, I would love to hear about the memory you conjured, and how this experience feels to you. Please leave a comment below!

Interested in more writing prompts and exercises? Check out my workbook, Living In the Mystery, available as a pdf or spiral-bound book.