David Weir

photo typewriter with paper in carriage that says "investigation"

So you want to investigate your own past. How to begin?

First you should access and organize your own personal records. These are going to be extremely valuable assets in your research. And it's here that packrats have an inherent advantage, although many of them may need help organizing their stuff. Old grade-school report cards, college financial aid letters, tax returns, bank statements, tax bills, car maintenance records, even simple receipts can tell a story. When was it that you had that tire blowout on the freeway exactly? You remember the exit sign but which tow company came to help, with that nice man who turned out to know your cousin? And, yes, that's how you found out why your uncle had to leave town so suddenly back when you were a kid.

Records tell stories, you just have to allow them to speak.

An even more powerful treasure trove of your past lies in the letters, journals, photos, tapes and videos you've stuffed in an old box in the garage somewhere. Fifty times you almost threw them away; fifty times you didn't.

Now that you're seriously contemplating your history they are suddenly fifty times more valuable than they were yesterday. Most of the letters were addressed to you from someone else among your family members, friends, or associates. But you also have of your own letters, like those you wrote overseas that your sister saved for you.

Pay attention to the language usage in these letters. Look at the stamps and the postmarks. Note the dates. In stories, certain details matter.

And there is your college application essay, your first job application cover letter, an angry Letter to the Editor of the local newspaper. Your own writing is always a window into your prior self -- how you presented yourself to the world back then, and how you used language to express your feelings.

As you pour through this mass of material, think as if you are conducting a forensic analysis, as if your former self were somebody alien to you now. The reason I say this is you need to try and be as objective about yourself as possible in this process.

It should be as if you are writing a biography of another person.

photo of pile of letters

Photographic evidence is particularly revealing. Note the expressions, the body language, who stands next to whom, what's in the background, which smiles are natural and which are forced. Who snapped that photo.

Every picture tells not one but many stories. Much of what you are seeking can be glimpsed through the lens of cameras past but you have to be able to see it.

Beyond physical records and let's be frank here, most of us don't have many, you have a great tool in your computer. Your grandmother didn't have that when she wrote down her memories. So take advantage of your advantage. More and more digitized history is available, as various efforts to catalogue the past and bring it online proceed here and there.

And of course there is original web content itself. Stories about you that appeared here and there. More photos. More citations. Look up your name at academia.edu. You might be surprised how many scholars have cited your work.

For the past 25 years or so, there's the Wayback Machine hosted by the non-profit Internet Archive. You can familiarize yourself with how to use it or there are articles to help guide you. I just unearthed an old article for a friend that brought back memories for her.

While there is the frustration of dead links, you can sometimes find workarounds for that issue. For instance, try locating the author of any article you seek — authors tend to maintain their own clip files apart from the web.

And when researching family history, please don't overlook obituaries. Many details of the lives of even people you knew well only appear in print at the end of their stories.

For deeper forensic analyses, you want to probe legal files, including criminal and civil cases, divorce judgements, adoption papers and bankruptcy filings. Property records from the assessor and recorders offices are public records you can obtain.

If this all sounds scary, it isn't. Just give it a try. The clerks in most agency offices prove extremely helpful.

Do not overlook the Freedom of Information Act, which allows you to find out what data government agencies collected and maintained about you. You may think only of intelligence agencies like the FBI and CIA but most FOIA files are far more mundane, but perhaps more relevant to what you need to know.

Most states have some sort of sunshine laws; in California it's known as the California Public Records Act. There are non-profit organizations that can help you draft letters of inquiry and interpret the results when the agency in question sends you the records you requested.

But all of this record-seeking is only one aspect of investigating your life, or what I call Memoir Journalism. It is other people who hold the majority of the information you with to know locked away in their memories.

To help them unlock those memories, you need to perfect your interviewing techniques. Fortunately there are many available resources to help you with this, from YouTube videos to journalism classes or some friendly retired reporter, lawyer, investigator, insurance adjuster, historian or homicide inspector.

Many people know how to obtain information through conversation.

And conversations can be the fun part of all this. Like fossil fuels stored in the rocks beneath our feet, the memories locked in the brains of others need to be mined and released.

Just try not to be a reckless brain surgeon and try not to pollute the planet in the process.

The key to all of this, at the end, is to think like an investigator.


David WeirDavid Weir has taught memoir-writing at OLLI @Berkeley. He is a well known journalist who co-founded the Center for Investigative Reporting, taught at the J School, was VP of Content at HotWired, and most recently was on the leadership team at KQED. His work has appeared in Rolling Stone, Mother Jones, 7x7, California magazine, KQED, Salon, San Francisco Examiner and numerous other publications and outlets. Speaking of Memoir originally appeared on David's Facebook page and is shared here with his permission.