A while back, in a Teaching Creative Writing class on Whidbey Island, Grier Jewell (a writer of playfully dark and scary short stories about kids) taught us how to use childhood memories or events to create character backstory or motivations and to spot themes that might make their way into our writing, perhaps unbidden.
Grier was teaching us about George Ella Lyon’s poem Where I’m From, which is often used as a writing prompt for writers. If Where I’m From is new to you, have a look at Ms. Lyon’s website on which she discusses the many ways you can use the idea to generate story ideas.
Grier’s lesson gave us two bonuses: first, the recognition that we could use the process to develop our characters – that is, to write a similar list poem for our characters; and second, the recognition that your own “Where I’m From” or “What I’m Made of” list (the ingredients for your recipe) may reveal themes that you can watch for in your writing and, where necessary, manage.
How to make your recipe
This activity requires only that you cast your mind back to childhood. For some of us that is a longer journey than for others. If the journey is a lengthy one, it will help if you take a look at photos from your childhood to jog your memories.
Grier asked us to make a list of several things that stick with us about the time we were kids: sights, sounds, tastes, smells that evoke memories of childhood; events; places; objects; music, songs, movies; quotes (for example, things your parents said); beliefs or superstitions. The list contains the ingredients that go into the recipe that is you.
For one or two of us, the list showed a distinct attraction for the forbidden (sneaking into the ice arena to smoke cigarettes, the biting but thrilling taste of the beer an adult left untended in the living room.) For others, the list showed the best of a protected, comforting home environment.
My list included the sharp cry of magpies, the rich, sweet, sticky taste of MacIntosh toffee, the yeasty smell of just baked bread, the upper level of the ice arena (yes, that’s where my friend Judy and I experimented smoking the cigarettes she lifted from her mother’s pack), the kitten my brother’s rotten friend threw into the outhouse hole, Wild Thing by The Troggs.
And this quote from my mother about a local woman: “she just has to look at a man’s pants and she’s pregnant.” Today, I understand this to refer to her friend’s fertility. At the time, when I was a naïve pre-teen, I took it as a lesson in how babies were made….
Now, if you’re poetic, you can create a list poem, using “I’m from” or “I’m made of” as the first few words. Or if you are not (as I am not) you could create a recipe, along the lines of :
“Mix equal parts of baking bread’s warm, yeasty aroma and the sound of magpies’ sharp calls, add pieces of MacIntosh toffee until the mixture sticks together; add one tablespoon of flat beer and a dollop of shit from the outhouse kitten, stir vigorously for five minutes while dancing to Wild Thing, fretting over clandestine cigarettes, and refusing to look below a man’s belt-line. Bake for twenty years at an average temperature of 60 fahrenheit or 15 celsius. Remove from the oven and unleash Charlotte Morganti onto an unsuspecting world.”
Uses for your writing
First – your characters: Try this exercise for your characters, and keep the list poem or recipe near your computer as you write. You may find that you need to write a few list poems, putting the ingredients in different orders, or using some ingredients and not others, in order to come up with the recipe or poem that best encapsulates your characters. But at the end of the exercise you will know your characters.
Second – your themes: You may discover trends or themes when you look at the list of items you have identified as meaningful from your childhood. Then, ask yourself what impact they have on the stories you write or the characters you create. For example, do you think of childhood as a time of warm family gatherings? If so, and you are writing for young readers, do you find it difficult to allow the young protagonists to solve their dilemmas without hovering parents? Recognizing your tendency to equate childhood with protection may help you watch for that tendency in your writing.
Perhaps the theme in your list is one of righting wrongs or fighting for the under-kitten. Check your fictional themes to see if they lean too heavily to the “off with their heads” approach to penalizing wrongdoers. You get the idea.
I love it when something does double duty. Here we have an exercise that does triple duty: generates story ideas, creates characters and gives you insights into the themes that may underlie your writing. A triple play!
About that kitten
And, in case you’re worrying, I saw that rotten kid toss the kitten into the outhouse hole. By the time I looked into the stinky depths, the kitten was clinging to the 2×4 rail not far from the seat. I reached in, grabbed the now slippery and shitty kitten, and lifted it out. Cleaning it was slightly more traumatic, as the kitten realized it hated water more than shit. And ever since then, I’ve been battling the feeling that I can (or must) rescue every creature.
How about you? What are the ingredients for your recipe?