You should always carry a notebook to capture what most needs remembering so that, to paraphrase Oscar Wilde, you'll never be without good reading material. Here, some prompts to get you started on that most fascinating of stories—yours.
1. The Watched/Read It List
Right now, write down the name of the book you're reading and the last movie you saw. Keeping a list of all the books you have read and movies you have seen will help you remember where your mind has been and also, over time, will reveal your changing tastes and moods. Like any journal, the list will start to show you your own patterns. It must mean something, for example, that every 10 years you go through a vampire stage, then a poetry palate cleanser, before diving into some classics. And if you keep a list, you won't ever have to reread the first hundred pages of Finnegans Wake before realizing why things seem so familiar.
2. The Mistake You Never Want to Make
Once, while hiking the rim of the Grand Canyon, my husband and I saw a parent flipping out at his sulky child, shouting (as we now repeat daily), "You're ruining everything, Mr. Complainer!" We didn't have children, so of course we thought this was hilarious—the kind of parenting error we would never in a million years commit. The dad was too irritated to see how his outburst made the child a thousand times less likely to stop complaining, bizarrely laying responsibility for how fun the entire vacation was, possibly the vast Grand Canyon itself, on the kid's grouchy little blond head. Now that we have a couple of Mr. Complainers ourselves, we use it as a cautionary tale; when whininess eats at our eardrums, we remind each other, "Don't 'Mr. Complainer' him, okay?" Maybe yours is a life-level whoops you never want to commit—your sister's bad marriage, your best friend's ill-suited career path—or a smaller matter, like having witnessed at the next table over the horrors of a first date marred by a mouth-full-of-food talker. If it's an act you want to avoid, make a note of both the mistake and why it was so bad.
3. The Most Unexpected Compliment You Ever Got
I will never forget the day in high school when I was driving somewhere and my friend's cute older brother told me, from the backseat, that I had nice shoulders. I had never in my life considered my shoulders and certainly never, ever considered they might be nice. It was so unexpected and so unusual that I was forced to conclude it must be true. What was the most unexpected compliment you ever got? The time your co-worker said, "You know, he's really smart—like you"? The time your toddler heard Aretha Franklin singing and wondered aloud if it was you? Store it up for those times when you really need a random "Nice shoulders!" and the world is not complying.
4. Your Best Friend's Recipe for Gazpacho
We all have our go-to recipes for weeknight family dinners. (I mean, I'm assuming you do. I just have a really skilled microwave.) That's not what this is about. This is about your go-to recipe for yourself. This is about the refreshing, spicy, cilantro-loaded, garlic-chunk-studded gazpacho your friend served at your book group that you couldn't get enough of—but that you know no one in your family will eat. You may well never make it. You may just end up reading over it on steamy days and remembering that lovely meal. Ask for the recipe anyway.
Most of us know our disappointments by name, like nattering and unsightly neighbor children (as we just reviewed in item no. 6, for those of you playing along at home). But what about your life has turned out to be bigger, brighter, sparklier than you ever would have imagined? What would make 14-year-old you delighted, if not disbelieving? Maybe you have the job you never thought attainable, you prima ballerina/pilot/bakery owner/astronaut you. Maybe you traded in your station wagon for a zippy scooter. Maybe you have the greatest husband in the world, or seven cats, or a late-discovered but amazing faculty for acquiring new languages. Escribe, por favor.
7. That One Quote
You know the one—it's that line that makes even the worst day seem better. Capturing it in a special notebook or on an index card to tack up by your desk is a good idea not only for the reminder it creates but also for the very act of writing. When was the last time you took pen to paper, saw the distantly familiar scrawl of your own handwriting? The act of writing—as you knew when you were scribbling song lyrics in your copy of The Nothing Book—makes you slow down and think the words as you go, causes a quote (or poem, or song lyric) to enter your brain more viscerally, retracing the paths of your very own thoughts.
8. The Best Surprise You've Ever Had
Whether it was a 40th birthday party you never saw coming or a family member who joined the crew in an unexpected way, life always has a way of shaking us up when we least expect it. Big or small, what surprise has warped your life for the better?
9. The Hardest Thing to Forgive
This doesn't have to be the worst thing anyone's ever done to you, which may have, for whatever reason, been easier to forgive. It's whatever has been, if you're really honest with yourself, hardest to let go of. The mean prank in junior high that dismantled your self-esteem may have been eating at you longer that anything else. (After all, as forgiveness expert Fred Luskin says, "Forgiveness concepts are simple. It's the execution that's hard.") For extra credit, write down the story from the point of view of the perpetrator: the distant parent, the cheating ex, the nasty science lab partner. You never know what you might discover.
10. Your True Happiness
Without thinking too much about it, describe in as much detail as possible your perfect happiness. It can be a remembered instant of bliss or a ludicrous long shot, but whatever it is—a sunny picnic in a meadow, skydiving in Thailand—may offer a clue as to how to get happy in those moments when you really, really aren't. (As in, I know I can't nestle in a bed surrounded by books in the middle of a stressful afternoon, but maybe I can steal five minutes to reread a favorite paragraph of something.) And the act of lingering over each (possibly imagined) detail may just create its own tiny getaway.
A life lesson from a grandmother is guaranteed to be one that's passed the test of time. For example, Rihanna told Oprah that her "Gran Gran Dolly" always said to marry a man who loves you more than you love him, which is advice that should probably be dispensed along with every "where do babies come from?" talk. You might need to prod your particular relative, but chances are that the results will be surprising. I know someone who sent his reticent grandmother a written questionnaire and received a beautiful reply: "If I could do it over," she wrote in her quavery hand, "I wouldn't have taken everything so hard. I would have been easier." I know I'll never forget what my grandmother once told me, perhaps equally as profound: "Go barefoot as often as you can."
12. Your Favorite Failure
In your Facebook/Pinterest/Instagram life, every moment is set-dressed and punctuated with peonies. But what about the biggest, most glorious, crashing-in-flames failure in your life? If you're doing this life thing right, it's probably almost too painful to admit, almost too difficult to record the depths you once found yourself in. The relationship you really wanted to work that crumbled beneath you, the graduate degree you never finished your thesis to earn, the dream job you almost, but didn't, get. If, as you write, you start to realize how this failure was not really a failure after all, but evidence of having taken a great risk and survived and learned, how it gave you a chance to see what you were really made of, great. But the epiphany is optional. The important part is just to write it down, to face it, to know it happened and that you lived through it—and just watch, see if you don't feel unaccountably lighter afterward (even if only slightly).
13. A Personal Syllabus
Remember that shiver of excitement a new semester's reading list once provided, when you felt the promise of all the things you would know in a few months but before you started to feel overwhelmed by all the work required? Replicate that happily overstimulated sense of potential self-improvement the next time you think about how you really wish you knew the names for types of clouds or how to make a macaroon. Just keep the list, and when you're feeling like your brain...no works...so good, take a look at it. Wait! One crucial thing: This is not something to add to your to-do list. There will be no final exam. These are just suggestions, reminders, helpful hints to guide your way the next time you're looking to rent a documentary, create a Pinterest board or just jump-start your imagination.
14. An Amendment to the Bucket List
Does anyone else out there get stressed out by bucket lists? You know, you look at the list you stuck to your fridge, thinking it would inspire you, and instead you find yourself plunged into despair because you not only have no idea what to make for dinner but also are totally never going to skydive over the desert, and you know it. You don't even really want to anymore! Here's a revolutionary idea: Amend the Life List. Cross off skydiving if you like; just be sure to add something new. Maybe your idea of adventure has changed. Maybe you'd really rather learn to crochet bazonky-looking coral reef creatures. Write it down. If you give yourself permission to change your mind later, there's really no risk now, is there?
15. Last Night's Dream
We don't always wake up the way we'd like (sun falling on the pillow, the room smelling of coffee someone's made for us). For most of us, morning is about a screeching alarm or an insistent creature of one kind or another. So I would never tell you to catalog your dreams every morning, because you don't need even one more thing on the get-done-today list. Still...everyone hates that "what was it?" feeling that is the unhappy result of having failed to record that brilliant midnight revelation that poofs off into the ether faster than you can say "I'm sure I'll remember." So once in a while, just try leaving a pen and paper by your bedside so you can scribble down that one crazy dream that stays long enough to pin down, like a brain butterfly specimen.