Tips for Writing: Become a Brain Archaeologist

'Man Writing in Notebook' by Dương Nhân ( by Dương Nhân

Memoirs! I still write fiction, essays, and screenplays. But I take particular pleasure in composing the My Real Memoir posts I hope one day to publish in book form. These have been gratifyingly received by blogger friends, many of whom have asked how I remember my life in such detail. The answer is two-fold:

First, I lie. Which is to say that, when the details are fuzzy, I go with what I think happened, even if I can’t be absolutely certain. Friends from my past have confirmed these recollections, sometimes with the caveat, “Yeah, that’s more or less the way I remember it.” Each of us is one of The Blind Men and the Elephant. (I also invent in-the-spirit-of-what-was-said dialogue.)

Hence, I refer to these posts as a memoir rather than an autobiography. Memoirs are allowed to be a little loosey-goosey in the service of self-reflection. As Marcel Proust put it, “Remembrance of things past is not necessarily the remembrance of things as they were.” Autobiography, on the other hand, implies a high level of journalistic punctiliousness with citations up the proverbial ying-yang.

In addition, autobiography can sound self-important, as though it were something the world were breathlessly awaiting. I once met a particularly arrogant fellow at a soiree. “I have decided to write my own autobiography,” he announced with profound gravitas. “Yes,” I replied, “it’s best that way.” He nodded in clueless satisfaction as I joined a group of less significant people.

Second, I do brain archaeology. A blogger friend, Annie, responded to the current My Real Memoir post with, “I wish I had a memory like yours for delving into my own childhood.” “Oh, my memories aren’t exactly ‘on tap,’” I replied. So, how do I remember my past? I thought about my process. I go on “digs,” I realized, with my spade (pen) in hand, scribbling down memories as they appear, along with the peripheral memories they reveal. I make no effort to organize these yet, just brush them off and put them in the artifact bin (notepad). Later, I’ll assemble the shards in chronological or thematic order. 

I also use whatever sources I can. Seeing the cut-out 7th grade photo space in my junior high school yearbook triggered the memory of how much I hated that picture, fearing my ludicrous broken-toothed grin would end my nascent career as a movie star.

In addition, I google era-specific categories, like movies, music, tv, and news. In this case, discovering To Kill a Mockingbird was released that year jogged my memory of repeatedly reading the book all summer, and of Dad slamming the car door on my finger when we went to see the movie that fall. Which in turned triggered memories of angsty pre-teen longings.

So, become a “brain archaeologist.” You’ll be delighted, and maybe a bit rattled…

At what you uncover!

About mitchteemley

Writer, Filmmaker, Humorist, Thinker-about-stuffer
This entry was posted in Humor, Memoir, Quips and Quotes, Writing and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

48 Responses to Tips for Writing: Become a Brain Archaeologist

  1. Holding those memories lightly and humorously are the reasons we’re all ready to preorder your best-selling memoir!

    Liked by 5 people

  2. gpavants says:

    Hi Mitch,

    Got it. It’s all mental calisthenics, right? Gets the ideas moving.

    In Christ,


    Liked by 3 people

  3. Anonymous says:

    Thanks for sharing your brain “archaeologist” process. These are great tips, Mitch. You’re a wise teacher.

    Liked by 3 people

  4. Gail Perry says:

    Great advice, Mitch. Instead of “Call Before You Dig” signs, there should be “Dig Before You Forget” or before the memories are buried so deep that one requires an excavator to access them. I’m thankful for old family photo albums and for all the teenage angst that I poured out on paper and that still seem to turn up in file folders occasionally. Keep the posts coming and let us know when the book comes out. I bet it would make a great movie too!

    Liked by 4 people

  5. revruss1220 says:

    Great advice, as usual, Mitch. And I agree; memoir writing is indeed some of the most satisfying writing I do. I am often aided greatly in that pursuit by my four siblings. We chat regularly by FB Messenger and sometimes the conversation starts with, “Remember the time…” and takes off from there. Sometimes I remember, and sometimes I don’t, but they always help fill in the blank spaces.

    Liked by 4 people

    • mitchteemley says:

      Great resource, Russell! It’s one I don’t have, since I’m an only child, and both of parents passed away years ago. Hence, my suggestions are limited by my atypical circumstances.


  6. Todd R says:

    I laughed at “it’s best that way.” Good tips here Mitch. I’ve been keeping more and more notebooks as times goes by.

    Liked by 3 people

  7. Love this, Mitch! The best story tellers lie just a little to make their tales go from good to great. I (Kellye) need to find my own spade and dig deep into my own brain. Thank you for imparting your honesty and wisdom.

    Liked by 4 people

  8. As long as it doesn’t create harm for others, then it’s all good.

    Liked by 4 people

  9. Thanks Mitch. I need all the help I can get.

    Liked by 3 people

  10. murisopsis says:

    I can only nod at the self important autobiography writer but I’m not surprised that you ran into him – it was a “soiree” after all! Give me a good old-fashioned “meet & greet” with all the normal people!

    Liked by 4 people

  11. Ana Daksina says:

    Oh, I just HATE it when I get those citations up my proverbial ying-yang…

    Liked by 2 people

  12. I would say that brain archaeology is a lot more fun than shifting dirt in a sieve hoping for pottery shards.

    Liked by 2 people

  13. ABoomer says:

    Great advice, Mitch. Thanks for the insight. I’ve kept a journal for 50 years. I hoped to turn it into my autobiography. Now I hope to turn it into my memoirs. It will read the same, but with less liability and no danger of boring citations & footnotes clogging any proverbial body parts.

    Liked by 2 people

  14. Thanks for sharing some of the secrets of your success

    Liked by 2 people

  15. Alice Flores says:

    Amazing Tips Thanks for sharing.

    Liked by 2 people

  16. I’ve learnt over many years to seal the box on my memories. It would be scary to unlock them. It’s interesting to learn how others remember our memories. We think of them as ours, but they are not others share a piece of it, too. I guess that how old age robs us when family and friends pass away their part of our memories go with them too.

    Liked by 2 people

  17. TamrahJo says:

    Out loud, health delivering laughter over the ‘I’m going to write my own autobiography” and your reply – man, I needed a good instantaneous laugh today! Thank you!!!!

    I’ve written several things and some call them ‘memoirs’, but I like the term ‘creative non-fiction’ just because – I can’t ever fully weave a story created just in my own head, but to protect the innocent/the shy, I will weave four or five similar tales in to one, mix around places and name, in hopes to ‘tell the story’ without leaving anyone feeling their privacy stripped from them – 😀

    And yet, all the stories of so many others, are part of the tapestry of my life, too – often in which, I’m not really the main character in the story – just the observer or narrator – 😀

    Liked by 2 people

  18. Thanks Mitch. That’s helpful – both your experience and your advice. Is there something there too about ‘true’ and ‘truth’? Details may not be completely true, but the truth of the feeling or the experience is related honestly.

    Liked by 2 people

  19. Thank you for this. I’m learning to do some of the things you write about in this post like describing the mood vs getting every detail right. Thank you for all your suggestions in helping rookie writers do their thing!

    Liked by 2 people

  20. Your clarification of autobiographical and memoir is spot on. Thanks for tackling the subject matter..

    Liked by 2 people

  21. Laughed out loud at the “In addition” paragraph! HA!

    Liked by 2 people

  22. oneta hayes says:

    Mitch, I am so glad to be assured that you will write your own autobiography, it will be much better than if you were to write an autobiography for someone else. Naw. You can write mine. I encourage a lot of lying or at least make it seem that I am significant. If I write it, it might sound arrogant

    Liked by 2 people

  23. annieasksyou says:

    Thank you, Mitch—I’m pleased my comment encouraged this helpful and enjoyable post. Well-brought-up soul that I am, I refrained from suggesting what you candidly acknowledge: you lie! Of course you do! This is not the non-fiction journalism that shaped my consciousness, requiring impeccable adherence to the facts. Perhaps I can now free up my own brain archaeology—unleashed from the chattels of veracity!

    Liked by 2 people

  24. Mitch, this is wonderful. I’m sure you could write a book on this subject itself! I have always wondered about that dialog piece. I love your clarification and Proust’s summation! It’s always a delight to read what you generously share. Thanks so

    Liked by 2 people

  25. LaShelle says:

    Although I have a pretty vivid memory, I do the exact same thing when I write. I also carry my computer with me everywhere I go 😆 so I can write on the spot if need be. My kid fell asleep in the parking lot of the grocery store all because I sat in my car for an hour and wrote out some hysterical events that took place while we were checking out. But when all else fails, go with your gut and bridge the gaps. 💪

    Liked by 2 people

  26. Rilaly says:

    As a friend of mine who always tried to use big, multi-syllabic words once told me, “…And don’t forget to be self-defecating.”

    Liked by 2 people

  27. craig lock says:

    Reblogged this on The Writing Life and commented:
    Thanks, Mitch, but I’ll first check if my brain is connected to anything, and/or if the wires are crossed …and
    causing arcing

    Happy writing and creating
    “not rattled, but short-circuiting/ed” craig

    Liked by 1 person

  28. E.J. Robison says:

    I’m currently writing a travel memoir and after reading this post, I no longer feel bad for “lying” about details and conversations I don’t fully remember. 😁

    Liked by 1 person

  29. Pingback: Tips for Writing: Become a Brain Archaeologist – Brandon’s Portfolio

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