Stories are conveyed not just through words on paper, but also through a painting, musical composition, or sculpture. We so often hear, "Everyone has a story to tell."  However, even more often someone says, “I wish I knew how to write, because I want to remember this story.”  In fact, if we think in terms of gratitude, instead of talent, anyone can write a mini-memoir in 40 minutes creating a bridge between the past and the present.

In two separate forums highlighting art and the written word recently, I was pleased to see a technique for treasuring memories that has been successful in my own classes -- freshman students at the university and octogenarians in an assisted living center. The simple secret comes with pairing an image or an idea that encourages one to put pen to paper, so to speak, and create a memory.

The Museum of Fine Arts in Boston held “To Tell A Story” in April.  The goal was to have participants view contemporary art works and, with pen and pencil, create a story. The intent was to bring about a greater understanding not just of ourselves, but also "the world around us."

Dave Ardito: Deconstructed History

Rita Watson photo
Source: Rita Watson photo

A sculpture exhibit by Dave Ardito, titled “Deconstructed History,” at the Arnheim Gallery, Massachusetts College of Art and Design, posed questions in the brochure that could easily form the basis for a mini-memoir.  

There were designs of thrones and these were accompanied by the questions, "What is a chair and what is a throne?"

One set of chairs was labeled "Deja Vu," yet, I saw them as "togetherness." The brochure  -- which was designed by art students -- asked, answered, then again asked: “What does “deja vu” mean?  It means ‘already seen’ in French.  What is already seen in this piece?” These questions turned into conversation starters among the over-flow gathering of art aficionados intrigued by the unique designs.(1)

I found myself reminiscing about "deja vu." Instead of white chairs, what I saw were orange-colored maple wood chairs nestled around our Aunt Josie's matching table. When we were young and would visit her, the family was always squished around a matching oval table in these uncomfortable chairs. Despite a large living room, we could not sit there because clear plastic covered all of the parlor chairs. However, since Italian visits often center around food, even when we made an unplanned visit, meals materialized and that table and those chairs eventually became a cozy place for sharing meals and stories.

From a Boston Athenaeum musical memory to the beach

Oftentimes ideas for a mini-memoir come to us through an image or a sound. It was in a hall of oil portraits, where the Capital Trio at the Boston Athenaeum* was performing, that I drifted into reverie one afternoon. I suddenly saw myself jumping small waves at Grandma and Grandpa’s beach house. It was during a time in early Spring  when we were first allowed to dip our toes into the usually freezing water.

The pianist for The Capital Trio, Duncan Cumming, dedicated a Schubert piece to Frank Glazer, his teacher.

Cumming said that Glazer believed an opening chord should say, “Listen, I am going to tell a story.”

As the violin, cello, and piano conversed, my own story began to unfold. I am not certain that Schubert would have appreciated my wanderings during the "Impromptu in C minor, Op. 90 No. 1." Nonetheless, there I was taking an ocean splash before running back to Grandma’s baking kitchen in time to lick frosting from a bowl and spatula.

Here is a thought for starting your story

In my “Memories to Treasure” class for octogenarians,  I selected a picture and they would write whatever came to mind.  One of their favorite's was the sailor kissing a young nurse on VJ Day. We talked for about 15 minutes as they recalled events. Then each person created a handwritten, one page memory in about 40 minutes. Later we word-processed the little gems, added a unique picture, and framed the works.  These lined the walls of a hallway gallery as depicted in an article and video. (2)

Seniors are particularly grateful to be able to share their stories as we also learned from The Memoir Project, a North End and Grub Street collaboration.  One woman said of the experience . . ."it helped me to see how blessed I have been and what a wonderful life I have led. It increased my happiness." (3)

This is a very simple way to encourage you to make the decision to cherish a memory. Carefully look through old photo albums. Or you might attend a concert or visit a gallery or museum. When a smile comes to your face, linger in gratitude, and hold the thoughts until you can begin writing. Here is a 5 step formula:

  • Start by thinking about the photograph, image, or visit that conjured up a special memory. 
  • Write about feelings that envelope you by the memory.  Describe them. 
  • Describe the place and the people that you began thinking about. 
  • Listen for their words, the way they spoke. Recreate the dialogue. 
  • Explain why you are grateful for the memory.

Happy and sad memories

Not all memories are happy ones.  While memory writing can be therapeutic, it can also be painful. Jungian analyst John A. Sanford, in his book "Healing and Wholeness," wrote, "Our life must have a story in order for us to be whole.  And this means we must come up against something, otherwise a story cannot take place."

In thinking about your own story, begin by writing memories for which you are grateful, memories to treasure.  Perhaps in the process, those memories that are hurtful will give way to a certain peace of mind, or even a sense of relief and joy. 

Copyright 2016 Rita Watson

*An academic member of the Boston Athenaeum as Adjunct Professor, English Department, Suffolk University, Boston, MA.


  1. Deconstructed History:
  2. Memoir Writing Bridges Past and Present | Psychology Today, with references 
  3. The Memoir Project / Grub Street
  4. Lingering Gratitude: Nonna's Young Lover and Your Memoir l Psychology Today

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