How to Get Story Ideas for Fiction Writing: a Memories Graph
While my wife and I were living in Marquette, Michigan in the early 2000s, I took a creative writing class in the Arts and Culture Center at the public library. In one class, the instructor taught us this memories graph writing prompt technique.
What Is a Memories Graph?
A "memories graph" is a way of identifying experiences in your life that for you were emotional highs and lows and then using one such memory as a prompt in depicting the central emotion of a scene in fiction.
The technique is, I imagine, similar to the "emotion memory" technique used in Method Acting. The Wikipedia article on that topic says, "In Strasberg's approach, actors make use of experiences from their own lives to bring them closer to the experience of their characters. This technique, which Stanislavski came to call emotion memory (Strasberg tends to use the alternative formulation, "affective memory"), involves the recall of sensations involved in experiences that made a significant emotional impact on the actor."
For a fiction writer, such a recalled experience might be a prompt for imagining an entirely new, original scene or incident—perhaps the memory of apprehension upon being left by your mother in a strange room full of strangers on your first day of kindergarten triggers your imagination to envision a young adult showing up at a workplace for the first time, and you craft a scene from that notion and from that remembered feeling. Or perhaps the first day on the job scene is already in your story or novel and the "emotion memory" helps you to feel and depict what the point of view character feels.
Emotional Peaks and Valleys of Life
One of my works in progress is a novella in which in an early scene a 12-year-old boy learns that an unidentified person murdered his mother. Nothing of the sort ever happened to anyone in my family. Part of what went into my drafting of that scene was my memory of feelings of shock, loss, regrets, and grief upon learning, when I was 46 and she was 74, that a stroke had destroyed a large area of my mother's brain, leaving her hemiplegic and aphasic.
Have you been awed by a storm, by the Northern Lights, or by a grand vista of mountain, valley, sea, or starry sky? Have you ever known the joy of victory or the agony of defeat in sports, romantic love, or career? Have you grieved the death of a pet? Raged at being unjustly blamed? Felt on top of the world, like when that girl in grade school whom you secretly liked actually smiled at you? The emotional peaks and valleys of life are very personal. From these thoughts, the memories and graphs are made.
Get a blank sheet of paper. The instructions are based on a standard letter size or A4 size. This is roughly as long as my forearm and as wide as my handspan. A different sized sheet of paper would work as well, I expect. Experiment if you like.
Creating Your Grid
To create a grid where each column represents 5 years of your life:
- if you are 20 years old or younger, fold the sheet in half two times;
- if you are 40 years old or younger but over 20, fold the sheet in half three times;
- if you are 80 years old or younger but over 40, fold the sheet in half four times;
- if you are more than 80 years old, fold the sheet in half four times and wherein the instructions below I say five-year intervals, use ten-year intervals.
Unfold the sheet of paper and then fold it in half once the long way. Unfold the sheet of paper and then, with a pen, pencil, or marker, draw a line along each crease.
Turn the sheet of paper so that the long sides are horizontal to you. Now the sheet will have one line that bisects it the long way and three, seven, or fifteen vertical lines, depending on your age.
Applying a Timeline
Near the horizontal line, label the paper's left edge with the next year that ends in 0 or 5 prior to your birth year. For instance, I was born in 1942, so I would write 1940.
Label each vertical line plus the right edge with a year counting by fives. For instance, I would write on the vertical lines near the horizontal line 1945, 1950, 1955, 1960, 1965, 1970, 1975, 1980, 1985, 1990, 1995, 2000, 2005, 2010, 2015, 2020.
On the horizontal line, put a mark of your choice or a B approximately on your birth year and a mark of your choice or a C approximately on the current year.
Record Your Experience
Approximately when each happened, note on the sheet a sampling of more or less half a dozen of the best and worst, most joyous and most heart-wrenching, episodes or incidents in your life. The higher above the horizontal line, the more wonderful the experience was; the lower below the horizontal line, the more awful the experience was.
For instance, for me far down in the awful range would be my experience when I was a young man of getting jilted by my then-fiancee. High up in the wonderful range would be my wedding day. Make these notations quickly and impulsively, there is no need to ponder over each choice. Five minutes will likely be ample time for this step—under ten minutes for steps 1-9. The graph is a use-and-toss tool for your eyes only; it needn't be pretty or precise.
Choose one episode or incident. How you make the choice is up to you. The instructor who taught me urged the workshop class not to dawdle. Choose the one you feel most drawn to at that moment, or make a random choice, or choose one that is heavy on your heart, or choose one that makes your heart and face glow with joy, or whatever. If your choice inclination is a toss-up between two experiences, just pick one of them (maybe toss a coin); you can use the other incident another time.
In this video, made a while back for an earlier draft of this article, the instructions are slightly different. There is more than one way to skin a gnat or to make a memories graph.
Reflect on Your Memory
Take time to vividly remember the experience you chose. As best you can, in your memory, mentally see what you saw, hear what you heard, smell what you smelt, touch what you touched then, and most of all feel again the emotions that you felt while that experience was happening.
For instance, I might choose my experience as a high school sophomore of feeling helpless anguish as I watched my father drink himself out of a last-chance job in his then career and into a hospital with delirium tremen, and/or I might choose my experience of feeling pride and admiration as my father got on the Alcoholics Anonymous program, achieved and maintained sobriety, and advanced from selling vacuum cleaners door to door to starting, in partnership with my mother, their own antiquarian bookselling business.
You could choose to write a memoir essay about the experience you choose, capturing in words what happened, what you felt, and what it meant to you. But for present purposes, we are using the memories graph as a fictional story writing prompt.
Fictionalizing Your Memory
As you intensely recall what you felt during one of the emotional highs or lows of your life, imagine a fictional scene (whether on its own as an exercise or a component of a short story, novel, play, or screenplay you are creating) in which the point-of-view character (who may be different in many ways from you) feels the feelings you are recalling, in a situation perhaps quite different from the situation you once experienced.
Like, using my feelings when my father hit bottom as a prompt, I might or might not someday write a story from the perspective of a man whose daughter got in a serious rock climbing accident and got addicted to a painkiller.
Create Fictional Characters to Stand in for Real Life Ones
During this writing stage, I recommend mind-map brainstorming character, situation, and plot possibilities. (To learn about mind mapping, Google on: mind map Buzan.)
Jot or mind-map some notes that you will use in coming hours, days, or weeks to write the scene whose core, prevailing emotion(s) replicate what you felt when a precious to you person died, or when you triumphantly caught that very big fish, or when your darling said yes, or when your car broke down in the middle of nowhere, or whatever the wonderful or awful experience that you have mentally and emotionally relived.
Record the New Story
Write it. I recommend freewriting the first draft of the scene you have in mind.
Two Videos on Freewriting
The following two videos tell the what, how, and why of freewriting. The instructor in the second video seems to me to have discovered for herself uses of freewriting similar to Natalie Goldberg's "writing practice" teachings in Writing Down the Bones and Wild Mind and to what Julia Cameron taught about writing "morning pages" in The Artist's Way.
This exercise of graphing emotionally strong experiences and then using the evoking of one of those emotions as a freewriting prompt:
Have Confidence in Your Imagination
If you are thinking that nothing good or bad ever happened to you interesting enough to turn into a story, keep in mind that Marcel Proust's A LA Recherche Du Temps Perdu (Remembrance of Things Past or In Search of Lost Time), a series of seven novels whose structure of repeated themes and motifs is as beautiful as a symphony, begins with the memory of the exquisite pleasure of eating a madeleine (a small sponge cake) dipped in tea.
Like stepping into Dr. Who's TARDIS, ordinary on the outside but wondrous and vast on the inside, your boundless imagination can be entered with a thought about something quite ordinary and commonplace but for you emotionally significant.
In this online article, "10 Authors Share What Inspired Them To Write Their Books,"
ten authors each tell what inspired the writing of a novel. One author's inspiration was a combination of current news stories and childhood memories of feeling isolated and powerless. Another author, who has always liked to ask hypothetical questions, got her initial idea for a novel when she remembered a teenage incident when she asked her mother, “Would you believe me if I said I was a pregnant virgin?” Another author said about her novel, “It wasn’t a story I really felt equipped to write until the middle of 2014 when I had my heartbroken for the first time…The book isn’t really based upon my personal experience, but definitely a lot of the emotions involved inform a lot of the characters' choices.”