Writing Inspiration from Childhood Memories

I grew up in a somewhat idyllic, magical setting—by my standards. When I was about two years old, my parents bought a gorgeous three-story Federal-style brick house with an attached barn. The property included a sprawling wildflower meadow, a fruit orchard, woods, and a pond large enough for kayaking and ice skating.

The house itself was designed for a large family with seven bedrooms (each with a fireplace), multiple bathrooms, and several more rooms for eating, lounging, entertaining.

Imaginations need to be worked. If we do not give it a job, it will act out and work against us through self-criticism, fear, and debilitating doubt. The house in this photo helps inspire the author on her writing journey. This post on Kate Johnston Author & Story Coach encourages you to draw on inspirations from your memories to help you find confidence and joy in your writing journey today.

Built in the seventeen hundreds, it had been a stop on the Underground Railroad. Prior to my family moving in, secret rooms and a staircase had been discovered. Sadly, the secret staircase had been removed to make a closet, but you could still see the outline of where the steps had once been. Also the secret rooms had been transformed into a nursery and a bathroom.

The overall historical flavor remained throughout the rest of the house. Windows with shutters on the inside, flocked wallpaper, wide plank floorboards, cellar fit for people no taller than four feet, and doors with thumb latches (horizontal bars that lift when the thumb lever on the other side is pressed) instead of knobs.

There were no X-boxes or Snapchat or DVD players or cell phones back then. I grew up with rotary telephones, an actual dinner bell by the front door that my mother would ring, televisions that would only operate if you got off your butt and pushed buttons on the actual set.

Back then, playing outside, reading books, and using our imaginations were our best bets for entertainment.

That’s pretty much why I say I grew up in an idyllic and magical setting.

Most of my childhood years were spent pretending to be someone else. My best playmate was my sister and we had a parcel of imaginary friends who supported us in our murder mysteries a la Nancy Drew, or our private investigations a la Charlie’s Angels.

My best stories came from those days when my imagination was wild and free. I don’t mean that I write stories based on events or experiences of my childhood. No—but that is where I kick off from.

I conjure a memory from when I was five (when a part of my house burned to the ground), or when I was nine (when we had a pet pig named Porky), or when I was twelve (when I witnessed my dog getting hit by a car and was killed) – and I visualize as much as I can, digging into the senses, and trying, basically, to re-live that memory.

Childhood Christmas memories are some of my most vivid, and I often draw from those special occasions to inspire me on my writing journey, no matter what story I am working on. Read this post from Kate Johnston | Author & Story Coach to learn how childhood memories can inspire your writing.Me, hanging my stocking, circa 1977. I was hamming it up because my stocking is like eight times smaller than all the other stockings and a source of endless needling from my siblings.

From there, I pull the details that can be used in another story. If I have to, I modify the details. Grounding pieces like smells and sounds I try not to mess with too much. Whatever words come to me from that memory—that’s what I use again because it’s authentic.

I wrote a story about a good wolf based on my adventures in the woods, a place where I never felt fear that I might be attacked by some beast (despite the fact black bears frequently came down from the nearby mountain and plodded through the woods during extra-dry summers, looking for berries). But I did include other kinds of animals that I really did encounter and used factual grounding detail to help me write that fictional story. No, I never saw a wolf in my woods but my experience with a runaway bull inspired me to write something that was fun, fresh, and creative.

Turning apple trees into spaceships (apple trees are some of the BEST climbing trees around, by the way) was a favorite game. One summer we had an infestation of tent caterpillars that pretty much gorged on our trees. My sister and I weren’t fazed a bit. They were aliens, invading our planet, and our mission: destroy the aliens. Gooey work, but necessary for survival. I’ve used tent caterpillars in my writing many times—all because of how they earmarked that one summer.

Rebuilding our house after the fire, one of my memories that provides sensory details for my writing even forty years later.My sister and our dog Gillian outside of our house as it is being rebuilt after a fire that started in the middle of the night December 1976. The family survived because our dogs woke us up with their barking and howling. We had no smoke or fire alarms installed.

As an adult, I visualize those experiences to help me rumble my creativity any time I’m ready to work on my fiction.

“You must know that there is nothing higher and stronger and more wholesome and good for life in the future than some good memory, especially a memory of childhood, of home. People talk to you a great deal about your education, but some good, sacred memory, preserved from childhood, is perhaps the best education. If a man carries many such memories with him into life, he is safe to the end of his days, and if one has only one good memory left in one’s heart, even that may sometime be the means of saving us.”


― Fyodor Dostoyevsky, The Brothers Karamazov

 

Like I said earlier, it’s not so much actual events that inspire me so much as it’s the feeling I have when I’m visualizing those years of using my imagination. I never felt self-conscious, or the need for perfection, or worried I was not being creative enough.

Back then, there was no one to criticize me for the stories I conjured. No one to stop me and ask for my inciting incident. No one to make sure I have a complete story or that my story idea is compelling enough for readers. Back then, all that mattered was the freedom to express my creativity and the privilege to act on my creativity.

Imaginations need to be worked. They actually behave much like border collies. If that border collie isn’t given a job (like 24/7—seriously, border collies are machines!), it becomes depressed or even acts out in negative, destructive ways. Same is true of our imagination. Imaginations need to be worked. If we do not give it a job, it will act out and work against us through self-criticism, fear, and debilitating doubt.

Find a time in your life—doesn’t have to be your childhood. It can be any time in your life where you felt on top of the world when you put your imagination to work. Visualize yourself in that moment. Meditate on it. Journal about it. Place yourself in that space again. Then write. Write whatever comes to your muse. Don’t put limits or expectations on it.

Let your memories inspire you today.

What are some of your favorite childhood memories? Do they inspire you on your creative journey? Let me know in the comments!

Have a writerly day!

 

26 thoughts on “Writing Inspiration from Childhood Memories

  1. Childhood memories can be a dicey topic. For those people with angst-free memories, writing about them comes as naturally as what you wrote above. Much of my childhood is not easily explained so I’m a bit reticent to talk about it, but I do enjoy reading about everyone else’s halcyon days. Kind of fun to do so, actually.

    • Oh, I wouldn’t say I have angst-free memories. I sure have my own childhood disappointments and sadness and ghosts. Took me a long time to be able to write a post like this, actually. Never, in all of my blogging years, have I spoken about my childhood in such detail. There are reasons. Dramatic ones! 🙂 But I can’t deny the good times too, and I’m glad to be able to capture them and write about them. I agree–reading about other people’s childhood adventures is a lot of fun.

  2. It’s no wonder you’re a writer with a childhood like that! My childhood memories are of climbing trees, playing in the dirt, and playing with my brother or the kids in the neighborhood. Most of my memories seem to leak through into my writing and I guess that’s one of the things that I enjoy about writing – reliving stories and things that might otherwise be forgotten. That’s funny that you had a pig named Porky. 🙂

    • Kids today don’t have it like we did, huh? Rarely do I see kids runnning around freely. It’s sad. I relish the simplicity we had, and what our parents had. I think that’s the best kind of childhood. And hard for kids of today to truly appreciate!

      Yes, I had a pig named Porky. Somewhere there is a photo. I’ll have to dig it up …

    • I can still picture my sister and myself climbing a particular tree and sitting in our “seats” where branches, twigs, and knots made for awesome “controls” and “levers” and “emergency ejection buttons.” Those were the days. 🙂

  3. Yes, childhood memories can be a great place to return to for inspiration and imagination. Like you, there were no limits to my imagination when I was a kid. I did have this obsession throughout my grade school years of wanting to fly, but I think after jumping off the tall tower with a slide (some slides with towers were pretty tall back in my day…which was around your time period too. :D) with an open umbrella in my hand just like I saw Mary Poppins float around with, the tip blip of being airborne and then crashing to the ground cured me of my flying focus.

    Sounds like you have some great memories! I was thinking of doing a blog post on one of my childhood memories but had gotten side tracked and haven’t written it up yet. Been kind of in a writing slump and feeling as you described…not too great about my writing, and so like so often with anything I stumble upon or pops up in my life, your timing couldn’t have been more perfect. Thanks for sharing your wonderful childhood memories (except for your dog’s being hit and killed by a car…that must have been devastating. :(), and your encouragement in visiting them to work the imagination. I might have to revisit my childhood memories to use later in blog posts or stories.

    • I think I know the kind of tall tower/slide you’re talking about — yeah, back when we were kids I don’t think there were safety precautions for slide height! 🙂 Remember merry-go-rounds? I don’t see them anymore. Probably because they’re dangerous! lol.

      Losing my dog that way was awful. I hope no one has to go through that. I did write about it, in a small story, and it helped me process that feeling of helplessness.

      Dorothy, I’m tickled that this post inspired you to write about one of your childhood memories. I know what you mean, though, sometimes it feels like you have to wade through peanut butter to get yourself writing. I hope you share on your blog, if you choose to write something. I’d love to read it. 🙂

    • Hey Dorothy — I just needed to approve it. Although, I’m not sure why. Some comments go through with no need for approval while others get tagged. Sorry for the inconvenience! I truly appreciate the time you take to comment. I love hearing from you. 🙂

  4. What an amazing house, Kate. Mine was boxy like that but not nearly as big. How fun to imagine the footsteps that trod those floors.

    Dostoevsky is one of my favorites. Like many Russian authors, he has an amazing sense of where he came from.

    • Thank you so much for commenting, Jacqui–and I apologize for the lateness in my reply. End-of-school activities, teen angst, and family vacation are my excuses!

      I loved that house and was heartbroken when my parents sold it. I was lucky enough to go inside last year at the invitation of the current owner and I was speechless–it hadn’t changed a bit!

      I love that quote. I’m a sucker for writers who can pin life down in just a couple of sentences.

  5. Great stories Kate. My childhood was not ideal, probably why I became a memoir writer. But I learned well how to live in my imagination to take me out of my reality. 🙂

    • I can understand that, Debbie. Childhoods can be tricky in the ways they affect us over the years. I still go back and forth in my head about some things I remember. Writing memoirs is one of the best ways to reconcile all of those questions and confusion. I, too, depended on my imagination to help me steer clear of reality. It’s how I became so entranced with Disney, actually. 🙂

  6. Beautiful, fun, loving memories of childhood, Kate. And that house — that HOUSE! With all the nooks and secret crannies! When growing up, I thought my childhood was quite boring. Thus, I read and I looked out my window and conjured up magical elves and fairies. I day dreamed and I made up stories. But now as an adult, I find many things to write about my childhood – it was much more interesting than I realized, upon looking back. I find when teaching my creative writing classes that asking students to write about their childhood is a double-edged sword. It can be a difficult assignment for some, and lead to tears and pain. But, it also leads to release and better understanding of their adult selves, and what they lived through as a child.

    • Hey there, Pam! So sorry for the late reply. I love your comment, and I have found the same pushback from writers I work with. Childhood pain is some of the toughest to deal with, and it can haunt us our entire lives. And I agree with you–it does lead to release and a better understanding, which can only strengthen and deepen us as human beings. If we are able to find a way to write or create from that pain, the growth can be miraculous.

  7. I am learning, more and more, to use my own memories as a kick-starting point. Sadly, I have grown complacent and not been writing (other than blogs) for months.
    I hope to change that, but am not rushing it. No need. It will get done.
    Great post.
    Scott

    • Hey Scott — that’s good that you aren’t beating yourself up over not writing. I think when we force our writing, it never goes well. Memories, from any point in our lives, can be such helpful inspiration. It’s always nice to know we don’t have to stay within the parameters of reality if we don’t want to. 🙂

  8. That house is incredible, Kate! Thanks to my wonderful parents, I had a childhood that I look back on with fond memories. Summers were the best…waiting for the Bookmobile to visit once a week and spending hours “pool hopping.” My best friend and I both had in-ground swimming pools so we’d spend an hour in mine and then run down the street to hers. Life was so simple back then.

    • I loved that house. Perfect for a kid with a non-stop imagination. Your childhood sounds like so much fun. Pool-hopping. I would have loved that! Yes, life was so simple then compared to what kids endure now. Although, if we were to say as much to them, they’d be appalled at the lack of social media devices and video games and wonder how we never got bored. Ah, youth. 🙂

  9. So neat to get a glimpse of your childhood, Kate doll! Sounds like such a badass house to grow up in.

    I lived in condos with my dad as basically an only child. Even though I had plenty of friends, I loved my alone time. I would always play with my stuffed animals and barbies in my room. You can imagine how intricate these toy productions were with me.

    I wrote in my journal from a very young age too. Definitely not as many options for entertainment back in the day, so we had to entertain ourselves. I know I had it good without all of this crazy technology. 🙂

    • Britt, I bet you had your own world staked out in your room. No need to go anywhere else, I’m sure. 🙂 I liked my journal also. Anything that had to do with writing was a satisfying way to spend my time. I feel sad for kids who didn’t get that opportunity to check in with themselves at such a young age. I truly feel diaries, journals, etc. helps a lot in fostering a true sense of self.

  10. Dear Kate,
    What a beautiful childhood home! And climbing those apple trees and squishing caterpillars….perfect!! I draw from childhood memories a lot… they are all over my desk on post-it notes and in my journals and on the files on my computer. Sometimes a memory can be too painful. But the act of writing about it takes out some of the sting. Having been dealt with, I can put that memory away and move on.
    Today, I’m going to take your advice and find a memory from when I was on top of the world. I’m going to take that memory and just imagine…and just write!
    Always happy that I check in on your.
    Nancy

    • No child should ever go through the years without climbing trees and squishing caterpillars. 🙂 I run into some of the same troubles with painful memories, but writing helps ever so much. I hope you enjoyed writing about a wonderful memory! Let me know how it went for you. xx

  11. I loved this Kate, and the photo of you as young Kate at Christmas evokes your passion in that moment and a bit of your jovial and kind character.
    As a memoir writer I concur with what you write. We have only to focus on a moment and reflect on a whole story surrounding that one moment. 🙂

  12. It’s fun to go back and relive memories–while there are memories I’d like to forget! The ones that inspire me though are invaluable, and I’m happy to be able to put them to use. 🙂 Thanks for swinging by, Debby!

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