Add Sensory Detail to Your Memoir Draft

Tracy Lee Karner

Where I come from, you can build a fish-house village on a lake and drive your pick-up across that lake in winter…

If you have done the sketch exercise I posted on New Year’s Day, you’ve got an idea for a plot, a story to start building your memoir.

Today we’ll be adding sensory detail to that plot.

I did the sketching exercise, too. When I review it now, I notice there’s not a single lively or interesting word. And I wrote 326 words–every one of them dull and overused. My little sketch is full of boring abstractions, brave, dewy, broke her heart

But that’s how it always goes, whenever I start working on a new story or essay. I begin with a lot of boring words, blah, blah, blah. All I’ve got, right now, is an idea for a plot. But that’s all I expected, and it’s enough to start something.

My sketch starts– The year was 1969, Christmas time in southeastern Minnesota, our house on 5th Street.

To build on the foundation of this sketch, I’m going to add lots of freewriting. Freewriting is simply the technique of keeping the pen moving and keeping words spilling out.

Write and write and write and don’t stop writing (or typing, whichever works best for you…)

The year was 1969, Christmas time in southeastern Minnesota, our living room.

My goal is to add sensory detail–sight, sound, smell, taste, tactile sensation and the physical effects of emotion.

You, of course, will start with  your own time and place. I’m starting with December 1969, southeastern Minnesota. When I can’t think of what to write, I write, “I see”…. and then I write about whatever I can see with my memory’s eye–the red and black loop-pile carpet in our living room, the red and gold flocked wallpaper. Then I write, “I hear Walter Cronkite telling the evening news….I taste, the chocolate chip cookie I snitched from the kitchen….I smell the meatloaf Mom is baking… I feel the hot air from the heating vent...”

I was seven going on eight. The problem is, I don’t remember very much about that year. So I’m going to “cheat.” I’m going to Google it. This always works to remind me of things I thought I had forgotten.

I look at Wikipedia, and decide to add political and social context to my story by beginning,

In December 1969, when the United States held its first draft lottery since World War II and the Boeing 747 made its first flight from Seattle to New York City, I was almost eight years old…” 

and then I’m off and freewriting. For 10-15 minutes. I’m thinking about that time, trying to tap my memory to find tastes, sights, sounds, smells, sensations… Here I go…

and had I cared about what Walter Cronkite meant when he reported the nightly news, I might have asked my parents to explain. But what would they have been able to tell me? Surrounded all their lives by the cornfields and lakes of southeastern Minnesota, they had never flown in a plane. They had never seen a war, a riot or even an ocean. Imagine, a body of water that never freezes solid enough to drive a pick-up truck across! 

One evening while we were eating supper–meatloaf made from a pound of hamburger, a package of Lipton’s freeze-dried onion soup, an egg and crushed saltine crackers, baked with ketchup smeared on top–my brother asked why President Nixon was drafting the neighbor boy. 

I pictured President Nixon, wearing that smile even an eight-year-old could see was fakey. The president was opening a window. In that same room with the open window,  our freckled neighbor boy stood, damp from a recent shower with a terry-cloth towel wrapped around his hips. He stood in the draft, sneezing. 

The news in 1969 was strange and confusing, so I never paid attention the broadcaster, the one my dad called “Walter Conkout.” Instead of listening to him, I listened to the commercials. More specifically, that December I spent all my free time as far away from the icy, single-glazed windows in our living room as I could get.  Flat on my back on the red and black carpet, right beside the heating vent, with my feet resting comfortably on the edge of the walnut console television/stereo, I waited for the Chrissy Doll commercial.  


Now it’s your turn. Play some music if you wish (a song from the era might inspire you). Grab an old photo album and look at pictures from that time. Then write for as long as you can, about the little plot you created. Add details about what you saw, heard, smelled, tasted and touched. GO!

Whenever my memory runs dry, when I can’t grab onto any concrete, sensory images, I do some quick research.

So I went to YouTube, to search for the Chrissy doll commercial. This not only jogged my memory (and was fun!) but it also gave me interesting information to share with the reader. It’s the writer’s job, to be informative.

If you can’t think of anything to write, find a YouTube video that fits the era you’re writing about. Play it five or six times while you write and write, and keep writing.

Free writing is about keeping the pen moving. It doesn’t matter what comes out. This is the right-brain creative stage. Next time, we’ll let the rational left brain futz around and do some editing. Your goal right now is simply to get a lot of words and a lot of details (at least a few pages) written. Don’t worry about sequence, or grammar or spelling. Just write and write around your plot.


I’m wondering–which time and place are you writing about right now?


13 thoughts on “Add Sensory Detail to Your Memoir Draft

  1. That really is a very interesting technique. I always wondered how folks go about writing memoirs, but this makes a lot of sense.

    I definitely know what you mean about context. I do it sometimes with older wines when I want to figure out to what time (and place) a particular wine will take me. I see wines as bridges into memory, a great and very singular way of connecting the present, the change that has happened, and the past. I love that.

    • It’s a strange thing, to talk about artistic/creative process. Most of the time, I don’t think about how I write–I just write. I use a lot of different techniques, most of them intuitively that pop up when I need them, after years of practicing them. Sometimes when I try to explain my process, I feel like I’m whistling in the dark.

      But when people ask questions about the “how” of writing, and because how is an interesting question–I feel compelled to answer. I like the conversation, but more importantly, I hope it gets people writing and recording their memories.

      I agree with you about wine as a bridge into memory. Have you written any more about that? I think it’s an important train of thought, because I think memory is extremely important to our humanity, personal memory, family memory, historical memory. When a person suffers memory-loss, the dementia results in a loss of personhood and identity. And when a family, society or culture suffers wide-spread loss of corporate memories, I feel like there’s also a corresponding cultural dementia.

      • It’s great that you are explaining how you do it. I think a lot of people take the approach of just doing what comes to their minds, and I think it is good to either see that others are having similar techniques or that others have approaches that did not come to me naturally.

        I have not written more about this topic, but now that you asked I am feeling more enticed to delve into this. I agree that the thought of dementia is one of the scariest things for me. Historical connections really matter to me (I have a German 1989 riesling auslese on its way from Germany in a week, which features a photo of the celebrations on the Berlin Wall on the label, talk about bridge into the past: When I see that label I think of my dad speechless and crying as we sit in the living room, watching the late night news for which my parents woke us up!), so I want to explain that aspect of my fascination with wine more. I need to find a quiet corner for a while, making it a work in progress, but I am sure you will see something on my blog in the near future.

        Thanks for encouraging me.

        • Wow! That’s an essay worth writing. I love how seemingly unconnected things come together–wine, memory, politics, family…. I’m looking forward to seeing what you come up with.

            • It’s amazing, how often something comes at just the right time…

              I think it’s important to pay attention to those “triggers.” I’ve never regretted responding to them, but have regretted the times I ignored their promptings.

  2. Tracy this is a wonderful series! Your explanations and examples are clear and helpful. I’m going to start linking it on Twitter and other places I hang out. And the comments of Winegetter, above, are a wonderful trail on their own, and show how our thoughts network in fascinating ways. I too would love to hear the piece that comes out of his musings.

    • Thank you, Violet. I really appreciate your encouragement. And I agree with you, that following the network of how our thoughts interact and inspire each other is so interesting!

      I especially appreciate that you’re planning on linking on Twitter–I haven’t had the time or energy to get involved in any more of the social networking than I’m currently doing. But I’m starting to learn that doing what we CAN do (as opposed to what everyone says we SHOULD do), is somehow, sufficient.

  3. This was wonderful! My first thought was, “Where I come from, during one of the darkest and coldest early winters, a girl in my class fell through the ice on the pond, and their farm’s caretaker pushed his own children back and saved the girl but then slipped under the ice and drowned.
    Hmm…think I need to dig deeper into the emotions of that time?

    • Marylin, that’s quite a story. Did it make you afraid of the winter ice? I never can go out on the ice without thinking of the many accidents that have happened when people went out too early or late…

    • I have to remind myself, too. These days, when I write, I often “know” where I’m going (which is fine, when I need to be productive and just finish an assignment) but too often I forget to leave myself open to those wonderful surprises that pop up, when I meander and wander around, when I don’t know where I’m going.

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