Tips on Writing Your Lifestory, 4 of 12: Linda Spence and Memory Joggers

Linda Spence
4. Focus on key events by making a list of memory joggers.

Memory joggers speed up your writing process and give you freedom to write. Your goal in listing memory joggers is not perfection in details; it is to remember that events occurred. 

You could outline your entire lifestory using memory joggers, similar to the approach Linda Spence takes in Legacy: A Step-by-step Guide to Writing Personal History. She divides a life into nine major segments: beginnings and childhood, adolescence, early adult years, marriage, being a parent, middle adult years, being a grandparent, later adult years, and reflections. In each segment she lists questions to help you remember what might have been going on in your life. She has more than 400 questions throughout the book.

Start with these prompts   
Prepare nine pieces of paper or computer files, each with one of Spence’s major life segments at the top, or whatever segments fit your memoir’s purpose. In each segment write a brief line or two about activities you were involved in during that time. Your list could include a handful of activities or dozens. Don’t write complete sentences or paragraphs and don’t try to write a story; just bits of information you will refer to later when writing your stories.

Here are a few prompts to get your juices flowing:
  • Old family photographs
  • School yearbooks
  • Travel photos
  • What you were doing when big news events occurred
  • Letters from family and friends
  • Family Bible
  • Newspaper on the day you were born or other dates you select; search your browser for vendors
  • Family heirlooms: jewelry, books, furniture, clothing, dishes, and so forth
  • Names of family members and friends
  • Persons who most influenced you, for better or worse
  • Those who guided your faith journey
  • Firsts: first date, first learned to drive, first job, first child, and so forth
  • Accomplishments and failures with lessons learned
  • Saddest and happiest events
  • Serious illness
  • Death of a loved one
  • Treasured friendships
  • Friendships gone bad
Expand your opportunities to remember by exploring memory joggers with your senses: hearing, sight, touch, smell and taste; revisiting places of your childhood, adolescence, or young adulthood; and spending a specific time in a specific place every day discovering your memory joggers: ten minutes, twenty minutes, forty-five minutes, or whatever time works for you. 

Other resources
“Memory List Question Book,” free download from Soleil Lifestory Network.

“Oral History Interview, Questions and Topics,” from JewishGen.

“A History of Me,” David L. Burton, University of Missouri Extension, Greene County; $10 plus $2 shipping. 

Minute Memoirs, Marnie Swedberg. One hundred twenty-five one-minute memory joggers you may complete in one sitting or one minute at a time. Download for $9.95.

Writing Your Life: An Easy-to-Follow Guide to Writing an Autobiography (Adults), Mary Borg. Spiral-bound book includes sections on getting started, staying motivated, and memory joggers. 

Find dozens more resources by searching your browser for memoir writing prompts, memoir writing questions, or memoir memory joggers.

Photo courtesy Ohio University Press/Swallow Press

How have memory joggers helped you? What memory jogger resources have you found useful?


  1. Linda, thanks for a most informative and advice-filled post. I've already begun using some photos which have definitely triggered memories (you can see both good and bad memories written about in my letters to my mom at I'm also using handwritten pages that were left behind by my mom at her death which chronical some stages, but not all of her life. And there are so many more items to use! I'm also going to pick up your book -- sounds like a very hand tool for a memoir writer.

    Wayne, as always, you bring such good people with lots of information for your writing friends. Keep it up!

  2. Good to know, Sherrey. My wife's late aunt left behind dozens of handwritten notes on wonderful activities and insights regarding family members and the notes are quite precious to us.