Memory Chains: A Strategy for Writer’s Notebooks

Earlier this month, Lynne Dorfman and I were meeting with some folks to talk about strategies for generating narrative writing. Lynne suggested memory chains as a list-like way to gather ideas about topics. This idea was new to me so I, of course, tried it out.

Here’s the gist of memory chains (in case you are unfamiliar with them too):

1. Think of a person, place, or thing that evokes a strong memory. Write it at the top of your paper.

2. Think aloud — or in your brain — about something you associate with that memory. Write it down below the first item on your paper.

3. Think about the second item on your paper and what it reminds you of. Then, jot that item below it on your paper.

4. Do the same thing for the third memory.

5. So on and so forth until you run out of room.

Here are three examples of memory chains I created. As you’ll see, each item led me to very different end points.

When I look at some of the links on my memory chains (e.g., Cousin Scott, Ari, Ogunquit), I realize they’re quite vague. Other items (e.g., pinch pots, ceramics classes in Rhode Island), aren’t things I really want to spend time writing about. However, there are several memories on the chain (e.g., calling my father from a pay phone whenever I explored Manhattan in my teens; driving to Zaftigs Delicatessen to eat Boston Creme Pie, listening to the “Watermelon Man” song in the car ride into Hersheypark) that would make for great stories.

Memory chains live inside of a writer’s notebook. Once memory chains are generated, they can be referred to again and again. Any time a writer — teacher or student — is looking for something to write about, the memory chain can be referenced. After all, each link on the chain represents a memory and therefore it can lead to a good story.

What are the go-to strategies you or your students use to generate narrative writing? Please share them below.