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Unlock Your Memories BEFORE Writing a Personal History

Key to a lock that says how to unlock your memories before you write

Personal history can be a treasured part of family history and should be included in your preservation efforts. However, the thought of writing about yourself may feel intimidating. Don’t let it be.

Many memories love hiding behind iron cages when you’re earnestly attempting to record the past. To tap into nostalgic moments, you need keys that open the locks on the doors.

  1. Pick one small time period from your past.

  2. Then follow these five tips for pre-writing your tale.

Pre-writing is the process of accumulating resources necessary for storytelling. In this case, pre-writing is unlocking your memories using memory triggers.

Before we review those tips, understand that I’ve completed the challenge. My memoir “From Metal to Rhinestones: The Quest for the Crown” covers a three-year personal transformation during my teen years. This ugly duckling to swan story utilized Texas beauty pageants to complete my metamorphosis.

Pageant Memori: From Metal to Rhinestones a Quest for the Crown

If you’re interested, you can read this book on Amazon.

The 100+ page book answers my husband’s request to explain how I became involved in the big hair and spangled dress events. The writing process was needlessly difficult because I didn’t pre-write the story.

Avoid my time-consuming mistakes by using these memory opening techniques.


Mindmaps are highly-recommended graphic organizers in creating writing classes, genealogy brick wall analysis, and product innovation. Mindmaps can help you define the memories you want to access.

Mindmaps start with a topic circled in the center of a page.

When you think of related subtopics, place them in separate circles and draw lines to connect them to the first. Sub-topics often trigger additional memories, which will require other circles and lines to this circle rather than the first.

For my memoir, I wrote ‘pageant’ in the center circle and split this topic into two additional ideas” Teen Division” and “Miss Division.” Branching off from each sub-topic, I identified memories such as the different competitions I entered, the trainers I had, the gowns I wore, and the talents I performed.

Another form of mind mapping involves writing sub-topics on sticky notes.

You write phrases that pop into your mind. Again, for my memoir, I could write “Bruise Dress,” “Stacey,” “Miss Texas Teen USA,” and other sub-topics that come to mind on different sticky notes.

Once my memories ran dry, I could reshuffle the sticky notes around into common themes. This mindmap employs a bottom-up approach, while the previous one is the top down.

Maps and notes can help you capture the keywords and phrases that help you when you’re ready to record the fuller details of your life experiences in an organized way.


Some people are more visual than verbal. As such, they can mindmap using pictures. To doodle your way through pre-writing, set a timer for 5 minutes. Then doodle about your topic. For a military service topic, one could draw sketches of clothing, a sign representing the forts or bases, machinery or weapons used, the medals earned, food eaten, etc.

The idea centers on drawing memory triggers that support the life event.

And the beauty of doodles stems from the free flow of the sketches. For those who shun rigid organization, doodling can open up the mind.

An alternative to doodles is visual collages.

Utilizing clipart and images from the internet, organize visual triggers into a cluster on a document. Find pictures of MREs, peacoats, and unit flags and paste them into a Word file or paste them into a visual board. Insert actual pictures whenever available, but not too many to overwhelm your inspiration board.

Whether your doodle is hand-drawn or a digital collage, create a visual memory aid that will help you turn your thoughts into words.

Be warned; not every key will work for you.

Sometimes a combination of the pre-writing styles will capture all the essentials of a great story.


Timelines are helpful when organizing a process, and many of our life stories happen over many weeks, months, or years. A chronological listing of events can help write sequentially, building upon the previous memory.

If you’re writing about cancer treatment and recovery, your timeline might involve the dates of the first noticeable symptom, the diagnosis, the procedures, the follow-up visits, and the remission declaration.

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If life events occurred during the treatments (such as graduation, births, weddings, new jobs, loss of a job, etc.), add those to the timeline to encompass a broader picture of the traumatic time span.

If a significant historical event happened, include it in the chronology as those events impact emotions and schedules. Perhaps you started cancer treatment on September 11, 2001. That date may trigger significant stories to include in your final memoir.

VIDEO: How to prepare to write your memoir

Watch this video on YouTube.

Mind Dump

Mind dumping isn’t a definitive method of pre-writing. With voice or writing, capture every thought that pops into your head by dumping them into a master file. The file could be a physical notebook, a Google Doc file, or a voice note app.

Truthfully, this is how I usually start pre-writing any project. So many ideas flood my mind, from phrases, music, sights, sounds, and emotions. If I don’t write in words (or speak them), I lose them. Keywords won’t trigger the impressions during a later writing session. I have to write until the memory well runs dry.

Many would consider a mind dumping as writing. However, I categorize it as pre-writing. The memories are disconnected and disorganized. They could be two sentences or a paragraph. The mind dump allows memory-capturing to be as lengthy or as brief as needed to revisit at a later date.

Once the mind dumping session is over, you can then reorganize your thoughts into a timeline or a mind-map.

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Memory Triggers

The things we saved from events in our lives trigger nostalgia. As such, when you’re preparing to write your life stories, gather those memory triggers.

When writing about my senior year in high school, I dug out my memory book. It’s filled with pre-printed forms that I completed in the mid-90s such as my likes, dislikes, who I went to homecoming with, what I wore to prom, and so forth. I pasted things concert ticket stubs, dance programs, photos, my graduation announcement, and football fan ribbons in the book.

The memory book reminded me I had a box of oversized items in my home: my homecoming mum, a piece of my color guard uniform, t-shirts, a  graduation cap, and more. Each item triggers a different moment of my final high school year. During pre-writing, gather your keepsakes in one location.

Use These Keys to Open Your Memory Vault

The foundation of memoirs and life stories are memories, some of which have been locked up for decades or more. To efficiently tell your story, spend time in the pre-writing phase using: mind mapping, doodling, chronologies, mind dumping, and finding your memory triggers.

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