The crux of writing a successful (interesting, moving, powerful, life-changing) memoir is, of course, being able to remember the experiences that shaped a certain period of your life. But you have to do more than simply recall those times. You need to be able to return to them in your mind and re-inhabit them in a uniquely visceral way.
What does that mean? It means not just remembering the first time you wiped out on your surfboard, but being able to feel the sting of saltwater in your throat as the current mercilessly tossed you; not just smiling at the thought of baking with your child, but actually tasting the brownie batter you two used to lick from the bowl; not just thinking of the horror of war, but once again hearing the wail of air raid sirens in the distance. Being able to capture these moments again—in your mind and on paper—is what differentiates a decent memoir from a brilliant one.
But what about the times when you’re simply not able to access these visceral memories? Easy. Turn to your photographs.
Some people are better than others at snapping pictures at every event, but almost everybody has some photos stashed away somewhere. Return to them. Spend an afternoon pouring over them, and set aside the ones that reignite a memory or emotion in you. And when those memories and emotions emerge, as they will, write them down immediately, in as much detail as you can, before you get caught up in the next photo.
After a day or so, figure out where in your outline the events in the photos fall—which you can use and which are not relevant to the story and message you’re trying to convey. Sometimes, you’ll need to expand your outline and your idea of the memoir in order to include some of these newly relived experiences. Repeat this exercise every time you’re blocked—or any time your memories just need a little visceral kick in the ass!