How to Journal: Recording Memories

journal and penSomething happened when I turned fifty. I realized I have lived more life than I have left, which creates an urgency to capture those memories before my failing mind loses them completely.

But how do we do that? How do we sift through all the experiences and select ones with meaning to share with our loved ones? Where do we even begin?

Sometimes all it takes is a visit to a local Flea Market. I am always surprised to find momentos of my childhood selling as antiques(?!) But those trinkets begin an avalanche of memories that I can tap into. Keep a notebook handy and write down any ideas that come to mind.

But I also need a system to organize these memories for future reference. Of course one simple solution is to organize chronologically. Using a three-ring binder and divider tabs, create several distinct sections. Some suggestions might include:

  • birth to age five
  • elementary school
  • junior high and high school
  • college and young adult
  • raising a family
  • mid-life
  • retirement

lois danielWhile I like this system of organization, I still struggled with “what to write.” Enter Lois Daniel’s amazing book, How to Write Your Own Life Story.

I love this work because she gives specific topics to help jog our consciousness, from our youngest memory to the present day.

I found her list of topics to be thorough and applicable. Of course, there were a few that did not pertain to me, and I have a few experiences that are specific to my own life (teaching, for example), but using her book helped me to expand my thoughts beyond commonplace themes to a comprehensive representation of my life.

4 Lois Daniels INDEX

The author also suggests a system for organizing these memories, but I adapted her system to meet my own (OCD) needs, and I thought I would share this system with you.

Lois Daniels advocates using a three-ring binder. I find them bulky and not at portable. Instead, I use a series of notebooks.

lois daniel-4

Spine titles identify notebooks

Notebook #1: the Index

  • In this notebook I only jot down ideas of what to write.
  • First, I number each page of the notebook, for easy cross reference
  • Then, each page is reserved for only ONE topic. The name of the topic is written on the top line.
  • After all pages are identified with their appropriate topic, I create an alphabetical index in the back of the notebook (again, this is for easy reference)
  • Now it is time to brainstorm. I look at the topic at the top of the page and then think of all the memories I associate with that topic. I write one idea per line.
  • I brainstorm several times per year, always adding to the lists.

Other Notebooks: the Essays

  • Essays are written in other notebooks. Each notebook is numbered on the spine for easy reference. And as above, each page is numbered as well.
  • Essays are not written in any particular order (organization will be explained below). I just write what I feel like writing.
  • Make sure to give each essay an appropriate title to help identify later.
  • Start writing. Write as much or as little as you want. You can always revisit the topic and write more at another time.
  • Once the essay is complete, be sure to cross reference in the Index Notebook. To do that, find the appropriate page for the topic – then next to the idea, identify which notebook and the page number.

I know this seems like a lot of work, but I promise it makes for easy access in the future.

Once you have written a number of essays, you can then begin to think about a Memoir.

Memoirs are different than autobiographies. The latter is a chronological retelling of your life.Typically memoirs are organized by theme… and often we have more than enough material to write a number of memoirs.

Next week I will discuss my vision for a manageable Memoir project anyone to create.


4 thoughts on “How to Journal: Recording Memories

  1. When reading memoirs, I always find the ones that concentrate on some particular aspect of life much more interesting than more general ones. What’s the best memoir you have read and what made it good?

    best … mae at


    • GREAT question, Mae! I’m not sure I can name the best off the top of my head, but I’d love to continue this conversation. I love reading memoir and would appreciate hearing your favorites!


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