capturing the hidden meaning in our memories

I crept to the end of the diving board at the community swimming pool and jumped. My seven-year-old body plunged into water far deeper than I expected. Popping to the surface, I thrashed frantically – I didn’t know how to swim. A friend tried to help me, but in my panic, I pulled her under. The lifeguard, asleep in the chair, did nothing, but somehow, I made it out. Later that afternoon, when my mother picked me up, I told her how I had “almost drowned” – but she didn’t believe me …

For years, whenever I told this story – to myself or someone else – I always focused on the ending: my mother’s refusal to listen to what happened to me. No matter how many times I recalled the event, I never got beyond that last scene. But was that the real message of the story?

The Snapshot Method

That’s when I began to go deeper, exploring the details and dynamics to add texture, context, and meaning. It’s part of a technique I call “the snapshot method,” and I’ve taught it in writing workshops over the years.

With this technique, we don’t go broad into a linear chain of events, but instead focus deeply on one specific snapshot in time. It’s a great tool for telling our stories, enabling us to recall additional details and uncover meanings that had been hidden for years. Today, as a fiction writer of the Ohnita Harbor Mystery Series, I have also found this same technique can help develop the story, such as using flashbacks for character development.

Writing in Snapshots

Here’s how it works:

Pick a Snapshot

Imagine that you’re paging through an enormous photo album that captures every event in your life. See yourself as a baby, a child, a teenager, young adult, and onward into your life. After a couple of minutes of mental exploration – don’t ruminate too much – pick one image. That’s your snapshot.

Yes, you can use real photos. But most of us don’t have extensive albums that capture every moment. The exercise of exploring memories mentally helps us access many more images that are just below the surface, waiting to capture our attention.

What’s in the Picture?

Write down the details of what you recall. This is the first layer – the basic facts of where, when, and who. Then examine it more closely. What had happened just before – or immediately after? Who is in the background? And who is missing? The more you look at this picture, the more you’ll see and remember. This not only fuels your creative writing, but it’s also a great journaling exercise.

Why This Picture?

Out of a lifetime of possible scenes and images, you picked this one – why? In my own case, I kept returning to the swimming pool story – and not just because I had been afraid of drowning. The answer is in the emotions evoked. Neuroscience tells us that strong emotions – love, joy, sadness, fear – help us recall and record memories more vividly.

In a writing workshop on the snapshot technique that I taught a few years ago, a man in his late 80s remembered being 16 years old and leaving the farm with his family to move into the city – and having to leave his dog behind. He teared up as he recalled a loss that marked the end of his childhood and thrust him into adulthood.

Another workshop student was a very successful woman who focused on the day she left for college, the first in her family to do so. She recalled her pride at being a trailblazer and relief at escaping her rural childhood, but also worry over what would become of her younger siblings.

In the same way, the more you explore the emotional landscape of your memory – and capture it in writing – the more layers and nuances you’ll see in your story.

Write Around the Edges

Shift away from the center of the action and take note of what was happening in the background – off stage, as it were, outside the scene. I call this “writing around the edges.” For example, around the edges of my swimming pool story is the fact that one of my sisters had been hit by a car four years earlier and was facing more corrective surgeries.

This fact influenced my mothers’ reaction. Not only did she refuse to believe anything had happened to me (I looked perfectly fine), but she probably couldn’t contemplate the possibility. This doesn’t change how I felt in the moment, but it does add depth to the story by revealing my childhood family dynamic.

Take Another Look

With the insights from the “edges,” we turn our attention once again to the center of the scene for a fuller experience of the who, what, where of the story. For example, the elderly man who had left his dog behind on the farm also recalled how his father had pressed his lips together to hide his own sadness.

The successful woman pushed beyond her guilt-laden feelings of responsibility for her siblings to recall how proud they were of her and excited every time she came home. These additional layers of meaning add complexity, and that’s probably why we were drawn to these mental snapshots in the first place – because they have more to tell us.

This Brings Me Back to My Own Story

Thrashing around in that swimming pool, I had feared drowning, and yet somehow, I had gotten out. I recalled saying a prayer – “God, if I die, it’s okay…” – and the primal survival instinct it triggered. Suddenly, my arms began moving, as if on their own, windmilling against the water. Slowly, I made my way to the edge of the pool and climbed out.

And there it was – the meaning I had overlooked for so many years: No matter how deep the water, I can save myself. Now, that’s a story of my life I want to explore and tell.

Let’s Have a Conversation:

If you could pick one snapshot of your life to tell its story, what would it be? How has it shaped you in the person you are today? Have you considered the backstory to your snapshot? What depth does it provide? How would it change your story today?