With my latest obsession of reading books by writers about how to write memoir, I’ve stumbled upon one that’s a little different than most of what I’ve been reading. Writing Life Stories, HOW TO MAKE memories into MEMOIRS, ideas into ESSAYS, and life into LITERATURE, by Bill Roorbach with Kristen Keckler, PhD offers much of the same advice as other books, but comes with a different style of writing prompts and “exercises.” When I finish the stack of books I’m reading, I’ll make a post comparing them all, but for now, I’ll comment only on the first major exercise presented in Writing Life Stories, which I now intend to repeat many times.
Excercise 1: Mapmaking
Please make a map of the earliest neighborhood you can remember living in. Include as much detail as you can. Who lived where? What were the secret places? Where were your friends? Where did the weird people live? Where were the friends of your brothers and sisters? Where were the off-limit places? Where did good things happen? Where did you get in trouble?
I’m not a very visual person, so I wasn’t sure what this exercise would do for me, but I was shocked at some of the random things that came back to me as I sketched the earliest neighborhood I remembered. First, I can hardly say I remembered the neighborhood. I was only 5, and my brain doesn’t seem to have been able to recognize space outside the main intersection our house sat on. We didn’t live there for long, so most of my memories were fragments, single moments in time. Exercise 2 is to tell a story from your map. I’m going to dive in right here, so this may not come out sounding like a story, since my mind only retained bits and pieces, a little out of context, not connected by much other than the setting.
The house we rented was across the street from a tavern. The door opened on the kitchen, where I see my grandmother making hot cereal for us for breakfast. When she asked what she should bring us to eat that morning, we’d said “Cocoa Puffs!,” thinking we’d be able to sneak one past Mom and fill our little bodies with sugar to kick off our day. She meant to indulge us, but somehow mistakenly settled on chocolate Cream of Wheat. It could’ve been worse. It could’ve been plain Cream of Wheat.
The street in front of our house is the street I learned to ride my bike on. I remember the training wheels, riding barefoot, relatives hollering encouragement as I took on this classic childhood challenge.
Running around barefoot in the grass between our house and the neighbors, I stepped on a honey bee who immediately took umbrage and stung the bottom of my small foot. I screamed my head off, paralyzed, with one foot in the air, until someone I didn’t know scooped me up and ran me to my back door to hand me off to whoever was home.
There was a kid that lived around a corner and down another street that couldn’t say the word “towel” correctly. She insisted it was “tolow,” and I never was able to convince her she was wrong.
Behind the bar across the street was a baseball diamond and a small playground. I see two kids on the teeter totter – one bigger than the other. When the older kid descended hard, the smaller kid flew over his head, right off the teeter totter, like something out of Tom & Jerry.
At a birthday party when I turned five, a little girl put our kitten in a dresser drawer because he was so little she was afraid he’d get lost. It took us a day to find him.
One day after school, I came home and gave my mother her wisdom teeth in the little plastic box the dentist provided. She looked at me with utter confusion. “What are you doing with these?,” she asked. “I took them to school for show and tell.”
When the babysitter told us in the afternoon we had to go take a nap, we dutifully went upstairs to bed. We laid around for a while, bored, not able to fall asleep, but we weren’t allowed to get up again until we’d napped. When I heard her coming up the stairs to check on us, I hung over the edge of the top bunk and whispered down to my sister, “Hurry. Close your eyes. Pretend you’re asleep.” She didn’t get it. Five minutes after we were checked on, I crawled out of bed and headed back downstairs. My sister was stuck in our room until she actually fell asleep, sometimes for a whole afternoon.
We had a small playroom at the top of the stairs, mom’s bedroom on one side, ours on the other. I see the ragged-edged holes punched through black construction paper for the Lite Brite. I feel the wobbly nausea from a long turn on the Sit-n-Spin. I remember fumbling with the nylon bands on the Loop N Loom so we could make garishly colored hot pads for every adult we knew.
My sister never flushed the toilet after she went to the bathroom. One day, my uncle, who lived with us, heard her flush, and thought it odd. She’d grabbed a handful of candy from the kitchen and was hiding in the bathroom eating it, flushing one wrapper at a time.