Just returned from a writing extravaganza in
Ireland—part retreat in the remote reaches of the island, part bustling residency at Dublin’s . In the conversations with the myriad writers I got to know over the weeks, there was a recurring theme that has followed me back across the Trinity College Atlantic and sits with me now at my writing desk. Many of these Irish writers (all well established in Europe and some highly acclaimed here in the States, as well) told stories of being afraid to write as children. Insecurity, guilt, shame—all of these feelings seemed to be seated in a childhood belief that if they wrote creatively or fantastically about their lives, families, friends, they were somehow telling lies. Mostly fiction writers, these talented wordsmiths were adults before they came to realize that good writing naturally springs from the everyday, and they wish they’d allowed the young versions of themselves more freedom to explore the boundaries between life and art.
It was with pangs of understanding that I listened to their regrets, because I, too, quashed my urge to write when I was a child, and for the same reasons. What utterly wasted time, I think now, my most successful fiction having been forged from the “real” stuff that filled the days of my own children’s lives. My first novel for kids, Lucy’s Completely Cool and Totally True E-Journal, was strongly based on our family’s experience having my mother-in-law with Alzheimer’s disease come live with us, and that book sold 150,000 copies in Scholastic Book Fairs and generated a great fan buzz when it came out in 2001. (Now out of print, you can get it for pennies at Amazon or BN, if interested.)
So, I’d like to share a few memory exercises that might help some young writers gain confidence in using their own real-life stories as ore for imagining the deeper truths that, well, lie in fiction. (Aren’t words fun?!)
1. Describe in detail a room in your family’s home. Include every bit of furniture, every picture on the walls. Then have a visitor arrive from another planet.
2. Write a memory of your favorite relative, only imagine her/him in the form of your favorite animal.
3. Step into a scene where a friend or sibling is in your kitchen, laughing. What has happened? What is going to happen?
4. Quickly list all the people you can think of who like to wear hats, and describe the hats.
5. Among your friends, who has hands or feet you really like? Explain what it is you like about those hands or feet.
6. Open your refrigerator and study what is in there for a minute. Then close the door and try to describe every item you remember, including details about the shapes and colors of the packaging. (Don’t peek! If you can’t recall something, make it up!) Now have the foods interact behind the closed door.