(10 minute read)
A few years ago in my memoir writing class my teacher handed us a list of quotes from authors of memoirs and asked us to write about one. After reading through the list of twenty or so quotes from well known authors of memoirs, I decided instead to use the phrase my writing teacher says aloud to us each week after assigning us the next week’s prompt. “Go wherever the writing takes you. There is no wrong way to do it.” What follows is what I wrote that week for class (in 2018). It is a reminder for me now, when I find myself distracted with word count, research, and self doubt, to simply pick up the pen and write. Just write, Carolyn.
My notebook is full with pages of scribbled down thoughts, feelings and memories. I sit in my favorite spot with the blanket on my lap and the cat curled up in a ball on my thighs; though I am sedentary my mind travels far. I pause every now and then to stare out the window, not seeing the activity of the birds in the trees but picturing the thoughts running through my head. I search for the details to bring the memory into crisp focus. While I sometimes struggle to recall exact words, I am able to remember the footprints left on my heart. What always helps me to keep the pen moving is the simple phrase, “Go wherever the writing takes you.” Quite often the path I set out on, lead me in a direction I had not planned to go. To allow myself to venture off course is a liberating experience. Especially being told that there is no wrong way to do it.
The author inside of my head has only recently begun to record my stories onto paper, but I have been spinning tales throughout my life. The imagination I had as a child was my favorite toy in the chest. I loved to make up songs and scenarios. I took on accents as I role-played a British nanny or a kidnapped southern school girl. I was Shirley Temple in a room full of imaginary orphans. I was Pippi Long-stocking sitting on a branch in the jungle talking in rhyme. I also played the lonely princess in the castle dramatically weeping out on my balcony, as I waited for my rescue. Characters and storylines borrowed from books and improvised with my available props. My two little stuffed monkeys that had velcro on the feet and hands were my babies, I connected them around my waist while pretend-dusting the furniture in my bedroom. Even with three sisters in the house, I still found myself playing alone. Joanne and Susan had each other and kept their door closed, not letting me in. “Get out of here, go play with Diana.” I remember feeling left out, Diana was four years younger. It felt like she took forever to grow old enough to be fun. I was the director of our play. We explored hot lava fields jumping from the large square sofa pillows strewn around the living room. We hid in the bottom of closets on the shoes whispering in the dark about the approaching giant. We played grown up sisters living in a fancy city apartment, dividing our bedroom into two parts with a jumprope, then calling each other with telephones and talking about what we were wearing to the party. We built forts out of blankets and told scary stories with flashlights. A big mess was typically left in our wake, only to be reprimanded later for not cleaning it up. The biggest mess we made in the house was the widespread settlement of Fisher price Little People. We had the whole family of wooden cylinder shaped armless bodies. We had the house, the town, the bus, the farm, the camper, and the airplane. I always wanted Sally, with the plastic yellow braids and bangs and the blue dress with the white collar. She said goodbye to her parents and left for school, she fought with her mean brother Mike who wore a sideways baseball cap and freckles. She walked her black and white dog Spot. I played Little People far longer than I ever admitted to friends at school. I preferred the endless possibilities of storylines with this community to the brushing and dressing of Barbie dolls. I worked out many of my dreams and fears those summer days stretched out on my stomach voicing the different little people.
We had a wide linen closet at the landing at the top of our stairs growing up. It was lined with shelves full of books. My mom read to us often. Three of my favorites were Big Sister, Little Sister, A Holiday for Mister Muster, and Jenny’s Hat. Each had vivid illustrations and special meaning to me: two sisters lying in a field of grass and wildflowers, an older sister who is bossy but in the end shows her little sister how much she is loved. A small school bus jam packed with zoo animals poking out of the windows on a trip to the beach, so silly and fun. Then the beautifully illustrated story Jenny’s hat, with a collage of different shapes, patterns, and flowers on her hat and dress. Of all the many books from my childhood, those three stand out.
When I became a mother I brought out those same books to read to my children, along with many more. I also began telling them bedtime stories. Our family favorite was the tale about Stretchy Man Sam. Colton found a tiny blue stretchy figure inside the plastic bubble you get for a nickel outside of the grocery store. Only a couple inches long, his arms or legs could be stretched out a full foot. He carried it with him everywhere, until one day he sadly lost it out in the woods next to our house. And so began the adventures of Stretchy Man Sam. The kids especially liked that they were the main characters of the stories. They would listen intently tucked into their covers, as I took them through Stretchy Man Sam’s travels through the woods, into the laundry basket, inside the bubbly washing machine, into a backpack off to school, and hanging onto the bumper of our car as I ran my errands. They giggled with glee visualizing the silly details. I made up other story spinoffs like the Magic Gum. Out in the same woods we came across a piece of sparkling pink gum. One of the kids put it into their mouth’s and began to slowly rise up into the air. So we all chewed the magic gum and flew over our house, our yard, our town, and across the country to visit our relatives in California. They delighted in seeing our lives from a different perspective, up above in the sky. We waved down to Grammie and Aunt JoJo. It was not hard for me to come up with these fantasies.
My active imagination that I had as a child continued into adulthood. I am an avid people-watcher. Due to our numerous relocations, there have been many times I have sat in an unfamiliar place observing strangers. Without realizing it, I look from person to person and build an entire background and story for who they are and what they are doing. Those two women at the other table at the McDonalds are best friends who have children the same age playing in the ball pit. They are on diets because they both ordered the tasteless salad, but are picking at the fries in their kids happy meals. They work out at a gym too because they are in matching sweat suits and ponytails. They are probably complaining about another mom in their preschool who is bossy and pretentious. I know my story could be completely wrong, but it doesn’t stop me from watching and wondering. It’s harmless.
What did negatively impact my state of mind, is when I would begin concocting the worst possible scenarios when my husband was late home from work. He must have veered off of the curvy road because of a deer that ran out. He is unconscious in a ditch. I will be widowed at age 35 with four small children. I will move back into my parents’ home in California. The story goes on, my heart beginning to race until I hear the sound of the garage door opening. Phew. He is home. Then there are the nights I lie in bed looking over at the digital clock as the time of curfew is approaching. Please God, I pray, keep Jack safe on the road. Thirty minutes go by, he is late. My thoughts travel into a tragic storyline of an officer knocking at our door. But it is the sound of Jack coming through the door that breaks me from that tragic plot. “Sorry Mom, the car line at Taco Bell was really long.” Thankfully this time the story ends well.
Just as the characters in my games of Little People or the storyline of Stretchy Man Sam, we have had to find our way through some tough challenges. Recapturing the details of the difficult moments through writing has given me the chance to reflect on our resilience. Some people do not like to go back to painful moments, but being able to write about them in my present state helps to take the sting away. Writing about my happiest moments transports me back to the years when my adult children were little. The nights of of bedtime stories in pj’s. I am right there again, lying with them smelling their freshly bathed soapy skin on their outstretched arms, and their Johnson’s baby shampoo wet hair next to my chin. I hear them yawn as they give in to the exhaustion from their busy activity of the day.
My son and I spoke at bedtime last night about time travel. I was reminiscing about when he was little and the stories I told him and his siblings. He said that in his English class they are reading The Great Gatsby. He believes that reading the words written almost 100 years ago are a form of time travel. I asked him, “Are you time traveling back there? Or is F. Scott Fitzgerald time traveling here?” We laughed together at this perplexing question. Go where the writing takes you. I like to go back in time in my writing, and then some day my written words will bring me back to the present moment with future generations of my family.
I have always loved and envied (in a good way) your creativity! Loved this post. Made me think about and re-visit my childhood times with my siblings. Thanks, girl!! xoxoxo