“Summer we lived in the tents.”
“Six a.m. bathrobe trip to the barn.”
“Party hats and inappropriate music.”
Sometimes it isn't a photo that prompts the memory. Sometimes it's a keepsake, or a comment someone makes, or the weather.
"Your head's a flat rock."
"Hot like when Dad brought home the pool on foot."
I stuff the scraps of paper in a jar and the jar gets lost again in the mess on my desk, with the extra bottles of ink for my "fancy pen" and the coffee-stained revision notes and, if I'm being completely honest, the pile of clean but mismatched socks, since my office doubles as the laundry room.
I don't use the jar much. But when there's a keyboard at my fingertips and I don't have anything to say, I pull out a scrap of paper.
"Angry Santa on the number seven bus."
Yeah, that was an interesting ride to work. But when I take that strange morning and write my way back into it, I've got a place to start. Once I'm in, I can play around a little. Change the bus route. Adjust the destination. I can hand the whole odd occurrence to a character I've got floating around in my head, and then it takes on a life of its own and suddenly I've got a first chapter.
It doesn't always turn into a novel. Sometimes it turns into nothing more than a productive writing session. But the interesting thing is that once I start writing a memory, I remember it much more vividly than I did when I sat down at my desk. Details start to surface that I wouldn't have otherwise recalled. By the end of the session, I might have found a starting point for good fiction, but if all I've got is a clearer recollection of something that happened when I was young, well, that's also valuable.
When I was a kid and something would happen – something odd, something funny, something frustrating – my mother would remind me that it would all go in a book someday. Though I write fiction, they say the truth is stranger and they aren't wrong. So when I happen across a memory, I put it in the jar and I use it as a place to start.