Kephart-CraftBefore I sat down to write this essay, I stepped outside and took a walk. Always a walk before I write.

I hadn’t counted on the winds, or the pewter-colored clouds massing overhead and crowding out the sun. The first drops of rain were a sweet release from heat. After that, it was an all-out storm—the rain falling white and thick. I stood beneath the fringe of two tall evergreens to wait the wild weather out.

Between my feet and the asphalt edge of the street a river began to run. Five inches high, six inches wide, carrying leaves, broken twigs, uprooted fists of grass, something silver and manmade. The sudden river took me back to my childhood and the creek that ran behind my neighbors’ houses. To dark shade and cool moist; bare feet in chocolate muck; to water striders and tadpoles, my mother calling my brother, sister and me home.

Memoir is, among many other things, about what we remember; it is also about how memory is returned to us. About where we go to access the past and what we do when it floods straight through us. Having written five memoirs, read hundreds more, and taught memoir to students through the years, I have come to the conclusion that those who write most knowingly about the past are those who understand what it is to stay open to the tug of long ago. Proust had it right, in Remembrance of Things Past. We all have our “petite madeleines,” our “exquisite pleasures” that tug us toward our story-able then.

“I don’t have a good-enough memory to write a 2,000-word memoir,” my students will sometimes say. “I don’t have enough to go on.” And so we sit together and figure it out. What keys? Which doors? Where are the memories hiding? We talk about the difference between provoking and evoking. We find their memory portals and their memory language.

A student writing about the early death of her brother located her story in photographs—of her brother’s childhood room, of her brother’s childhood toys, of some of her brother’s old clothes.

Another student found his memoir in music and concert stubs—the auditory and the tactile. Another found her past in interviews—the memories of others provoking memories in herself. The smell and heat of fresh bagels prompted one student; for another, memory lay in the art she’d produced as a teen in China and, later, in Canada. A startlingly powerful thumbprint portrait. A brightly decorated chair. A memoir.

I can’t remember, we insist. And then we do.

I’ve found my own past in a box of letters. (That’s what he said.) In a book of childhood watercolors. (That’s how I saw.) In the raw burst of urgent, nearly forgotten poems. (That’s how I was feeling.) In the face of a cereal box. (Those were the words that my young son read.) Along the sea at low tide. (Here is where my uncle was happiest.) On a crayon wrapper. (This is the color he said his skin was.) In a karaoke song. (Now that I remember the song, I remember the day, I remember how we laughed afterward.)

I’ve found it in a very specific sunrise pink (they saved me that day), and in the circus sounds of those horseshow grounds (heralding the taste of lemons), and on the banks of a pond in winter (it was like this on the day I first began to skate). I’ve found my past when I’ve gone outside to watch a cardinal peck at the berries on a bush. I’ve found it by driving to the mountains and staying at the inn where my family stayed when I was a child.

Often memories just find us; it’s true. They besiege us, blindside us, shadow us, tag us, populate our dreams. And while writing memoir is certainly a far more sophisticated enterprise than simply writing our memories down, it can be helpful (when not overwhelming) to have so much raw memory at hand.

But when we come up empty, when the past is a blank, when we are not sure, when we are bereft of then, when it could have been this or it could have been that, when we are fuzzy, the gig is not up. We are not done in. We will not get an “incomplete” on Prof Kephart’s memoir project. There are photographs, songs, artifacts, letters, landscapes to return to, a book of watercolors.

And always—always—there is weather, powerful as any madeleine. There is a quality of sun that will take us back—stand there; feel it; let it. There is a kind of breeze that will blow, a breeze you’ve felt before—remember when and remember how and remember why it mattered. There is the taste of snow on your tongue; you’ve tasted that before: Where were you? Who were you?

And then there’s the storm that you didn’t see coming and the evergreens that don’t save you and the sudden river that runs. You can slosh home and strip away your damp clothes and turn on the warm shower and feel nothing. Or you can stand at the river—slightly cold and utterly saturated—and watch the broken twigs course down. You can stand and watch and your mother’s suddenly there—calling out for you.

Beth Kephart is the author of sixteen books, including five memoirs. Her new book, Handling the Truth: On The Writing of Memoir, was released by Gotham in August 2013. She teaches memoir at the University of Pennsylvania and blogs daily at