I had an eye-opening moment in last week’s workshop.
We’d discussed action and setting, and read the wonderful Underwear Incident from Natale Ghent’s Gravity Brings me Down. (I think I almost succeeded in bringing maximal Nataleness to it in my interpretation, but for a few points where the giggles got the best of me.)
Then came time for the in-class exercise:
- Option A – Neighborhood:
Look back to your childhood. Describe your neighborhood, from the perspective you had at 12, 15, and 18. Focus on what made your neighborhood distinct, and what details mattered to you the most at each time. How did your neighborhood affect your life? How did your life unfold within your neighborhood? Take your time. This is an introspective, quiet exercise, that can have surprising results. If a story seems to emerge, see where it takes you.
- Option B – Halloween Variation:
Since the workshop took place on Halloween, I thought it would be fun to do the same exercise, only to describe Halloween at 12, 15 and 18.
Participants had far more trouble with this exercise than I had anticipated. Some didn’t want to start the exercise because Halloween wasn’t a “big thing” in their neighborhood. Others claimed that 12, 15 and 18 were too long ago, and they had NO memories from this time. Some wrote down a short list of bullet points as quickly as possible, and then stopped and sat, arms crossed, staring pointedly into space. Others said nothing, but rather than doing the exercise, worked on their manuscript critique for the week instead.
The point of this exercise, more than the detail of setting is:
- to notice what’s different between our adult perspective, and how we saw things as children and teenagers
- to identify the most vivid memories, and get to the heart of what makes something memorable
- to see the inherent difference between what we remember and what we invent, in order that we can learn how to make the things we invent read as authentically as the things that really happened
- to be free enough not to require something to be “interesting” enough to write about. To be at peace with simply describing what’s really there
- to discover how when you start remembering, it leads to more memories, and how this is a refreshing alternative to having to “think up” ideas
The first point is important in YA. If you can’t remember what it’s like to be a kid, then why do you want to write for kids? How can you hope to speak to kids on their level, if you don’t know in your gut what that level is?
As it turns out, with a little prodding, participants did actually have memories. They had just decided their memories were boring. They didn’t fit with contemporary ideals of what Halloween is supposed to be, so they got frustrated and didn’t write them down.
The real memories were the opposite of boring.
- “I was past trick or treating. I would have been at a party somewhere, liqor treating.”
- “In the 80s there was so much fear about the dangers of trick or treating, we stopped doing it. People started having parties indoors. It wasn’t the same.”
- And if it was a contest, this one would have won: “My sister was choking. She coughed and spat the candy into the bushes. We went up to the door and no one answerd. But as we walked back down the steps to the driveway, the owner was standing there, completely naked.” Um, hello, major incident in a short story or middle grade novel! Please, please, please expand a story around this memory.
Maybe as a writer, it’s not up to you to decide what’s interesting. Not in the first draft, anyway. Certainly not in a no-strings-attached memory exercise you won’t even have to share with anyone.
The exercise wasn’t to write an expected Halloween, an exciting Halloween, or a Halloween that matches the Halloween of today. It was to write a real Halloween, and true to form, the most “boring” parts of reality were more entertaining than anything that could have been invented, simply for being personal and true.