Monday, August 31, 2020

Mini Memoir Moment: The Story-Generating Power of Lists

by Marcia Moston @MarciaMoston

Punch lists, shopping lists, to-do lists—they keep us organized and help us note progress as we complete each item. However, we can also utilize lists to activate our memory-making muscles, generate ideas, and enrich our stories.

Let’s look at a few exercises and examples.

1. Use lists to stir up memories. As one thing leads to another, so does one memory often evoke another, especially when you write them down as they surface, without having to worry about form, structure, and grammar. Use the following ideas to list the first memories that come to mind. Later, if one memory captures your attention, go back and fill in more specific details. Maybe you can develop this into an anecdote or illustration for your bigger story.

a. First, Last, Best, Worst—These moments often have a big impact on us. Title four columns or sections on your paper with each of these headings and then use the following topics to generate memories under each. You can, of course, add your own topics.

Kiss, Car, Job, Date, Meal, Day of school, Dance, Vacation, 
Family gathering, Pet . . . etc.

 b. A time when . . . Again, jot down the first memory that comes to mind. Later you can go back and explore the event in greater detail. Here are a few ideas for times when something happened that had an emotional impact on you:

Opportunity knocked, You overcame an obstacle, You were lost, You experienced wonder, You became aware of the spiritual realm, You were rescued, You had to forgive someone, You were embarrassed, A bad situation turned out well, Someone made you feel proud, You had to make a big decision, You were scared . . . etc.
Here’s an example of how a list was incorporated into a bigger story:
A House in the Sky, Amanda Lindhout’s memoir about surviving 460 days in captivity, opens with scenes from her life as a child. For someone whose story is ultimately about having the courage to transcend and survive, she begins by recounting things she was afraid of as a child:

I was a frightened kid, almost all the time. I was scared of the dark and I was scared of strangers and I was scared of breaking bones and also of going to doctors. I was scared of the police, who sometimes came to our house . .  . . I was afraid of heights. I was afraid of making decisions. I didn’t like dogs. I was supremely afraid of being laughed at.

2. Use lists to inform or explain. We are an information-consuming people and are drawn to articles and books that can deliver what we want to know in 3, 5,7, 10, or 21 easy steps. Numbering points makes them easier to remember—the pastor’s 3-point sermon—and breaks information into tidy, doable units. Usually we remember (for reasons not gone into here) odd numbered lists better. But then, some of us remember there are 50 Ways to Leave Your Lover. Just slip out the back . . .

List 7 things, and then go ahead and expand on them with anecdotes or illustrations.
  • I wish I told my husband/wife/children
  • I learned by the seat of my pants
  • My mother told me
  • I’d like to pass on
  • I wish I’d never done
  • I wish I had done….etc.

Even if you don’t have any interest in writing memoir, keeping a collection of personal anecdotes, lessons, and experiences can be useful in other nonfiction writing—like when you’re fresh out of ideas for dinner and then you remember you have a few soup/meal starters in the freezer. So try a few exercises. Maybe you’ll be surprised what kind of a story or article a list can generate.  



Marcia Moston is the author of Call of a Coward—the God of Moses and the Middle-Class Housewife. She was a columnist for the Greenville JournalHer stories have appeared in several magazines and anthologies—Chicken Soup for the Soul, and Angels on Earth, among others. She’s been on faculty at the Blue Ridge Mountains Christian Writers Conference and currently teaches memoir and creative nonfiction with the OLLI at Furman University program and leads spiritual autobiography workshops for church groups.


  1. What a helpful post, Marcia! Thanks very much.

    1. Thanks, Roberta. I've become a fan of lists lately because they do help generate ideas.

  2. A host of wonderful prompts. My first thought is to get some loose leaf or spiral notebooks and have one for "Best, Worst, First, & Last", with sections each for "Date", "Car", etc to jot down thoughts as they occur. Then have another for "A Time When.." and have sections for "opportunity knocked", "forgiveness mattered", "a prayer was answered", etc. Then a notebook of sections for "Mama Said", "Things I wish I'd done", etc. I can see this as one extremely useful resource library not only for memoirs but for developing characters for novels and for writing poems to, for, or about special people in our lives.
    Great post.
    Jay Wright; Anderson, SC

  3. Enjoyed reading this. Did the 4 column Loved what appeared. Thank you.

    1. Good for you! Suggestions are just that until we do something about them.

  4. Very helpful article, thanks! I did the four columns and added reaction to pandemic, event I feared, person I feared, pair of shoes.