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You write and write on your memoir, and everything you think of reminds you of something else that doesn’t fit just here, but you don’t know what to do with it. Monkey mind! you think. Adult ADHD, perhaps. How on earth am I ever going to sort this all out and make sense of it?

Don’t you wish you could turn your head upside down over a newspaper — or maybe a clean sheet on the dining room table — and dump it all out, sort of like the picture you see here? Maybe then you could look at all the pieces in one place, and arrange them in some reasonable order. Maybe if you could see them all in one place, you would understand why seemingly disconnected memories snap together like mental magnets.

Brain organization is at the root of this quandary. When something registers strongly enough in awareness to be recorded in memory, it doesn’t enter as a loose scrap — it’s linked to countless surrounding thoughts and circumstances. Each time the situation recurs or you actively remember it, more peripheral connections form. This explains why hearing a friend tell a story reminds you of another, which may or may not be remotely like the one your friend is telling. Each memory links to dozens of others.

This organic intricacy enables you to retrieve and use random bits of information necessary to thrive in our complicated world. It enables you to solve problems, exercise creativity and resourcefulness, and win Trivia games. It lets you write descriptions that glue readers’ eyes to the page. Problems arise when you try to force that swarm of  hyperactive bumblebees careening around your brain to fly in formation within your memoir.

Corporate problem-solvers have evolved dozens of fancy systems and charts for managing convoluted information and making it understandable. All are designed to “make thinking visible.” Their specific tools may be overly complex for managing personal memory, but the concept is a valuable one. While it’s true that any writing makes thinking visible, sometimes those flowing sentences need to be chunked down into simpler units of thought and arranged differently. Tools for doing this can be lots of fun to use.

You don’t need any fancy equipment. A simple pencil and paper will do, though crayons or marking pens can enhance the experience. Huge sheets of paper are a bonus — flip-chart pages are perfect if you can find some. There are dozens of ways to go about this process. You can write single memories down on sticky notes and move them around to try out relationships. You can color code them, draw lines connecting them, and circles around related ones. You string clusters of related ideas on colored ribbons. You can draw idea trees, or timelines in dozens of configurations. Books on journaling and creative thinking or writing are full of suggestions.

Working on these exercises with friends can be even more powerful as you talk about your findings and point things out to each other.

No single technique can guarantee specific results, and the process is fluid and messy at best. But exploring memories with visual tools is guaranteed to turn up unexpected insights. They may help you find a new way of viewing past events you had not yet thought of and snap everything into focus. If that doesn’t happen, at least you’ll have some intriguing graphics to ponder.

These memoir brain dump exercises are fun and instructive, even if you aren’t plagued by monkey mind or stuck in a memoir. Give the suggestions above a try and join in on the NAMW Monthly Roundtable on February 8 for a discussion of Memories Are Made of This… Or Are They? Sign up here.

Practice three memory dump exercises in Sharon Lippincott’s NAMW 3-week short course, Soaring High and Digging Deep: Tools for Refining Your Memoir, Part I, beginning on February 8. More information here.

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