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.
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.
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.
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!