Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Your Story Starts Here

They say write about what you know. They say your story starts at home.

This is a picture of the house I grew up in. It didn't look 100% like this when I grew up there. Some things have changed. Some might be an improvement, some maybe not.

There used to be purple rhododendrons in front of the house that reached the second story, definitely at least the porch roof.

I once told my mom I was running away from home. I was about 5. She said, "Pack a sweater." I took a red bandanna and filled it with a bunch of stuff I thought was important and attached it to the end of a stick like I had seen "hobos" do on TV. And not knowing where I could run away to and not wanting to leave my home, I ran to the protection of the rhododendrons and hid there until my mother came looking for me. Which, by the way, took all of five minutes but felt like a lifetime. I am sure she wrapped her arms around me and made me feel very loved and very missed for those five minutes.

The house was built in 1900, the turn of the century. It is called a 'poor man's Victorian' because it didn't have all the fancy ginger breading. Those rhododendrons were planted by the original owners when the house was built. I guess the present home owners felt 100-year old rhododendrons took away from the curb appeal. We loved that they completely sheltered the front of our house from a busy and well-traveled road.

Looking at this picture now, I see how small this house is by today's standards. But then, it felt as large as a castle to me. That is except my bedroom.

It was the smallest room in the house and had only one window which conveniently had the roof of a side porch right under it. I used to climb out that window and sit on the roof. Don't ask me why. My parents respected my privacy and I had nothing to hide, but something about sitting on that roof made me feel "bad" and for some reason, in my teenage years, that felt good. Silly now.

The front porch with all the white columns... that used to be a screened-in porch. I have lots of memories on that porch. Like I said, it was sheltered and shaded by the giant rhododendrons. The columns are 108-year old mahogany. I can't believe they painted them white...

There was a hammock on that porch we used to love to while away the hours in. My father used to make delicious omelets for Sunday breakfast- he still does today and now my kids look forward to them every summer when we stay at his beach house - anyway, we used to eat Sunday breakfast out there in the summer on a drop leaf table. And every summer, my sister and I would dress in cut-offs and a bikini top ready to scrub that porch from top to bottom and all the wicker furniture inside it as well. We used to hate it, but secretly, I think we loved it too. It meant summer.

We had ducks. Huey, Dewey, and Louie. They were black. My father built a home for them and a wading pool. It was supposed to be my job to clean up their bed each day and feed them and give them fresh water in their pool. I hated this job. It was smelly and dirty. I remember one day my father telling me I needed to take care of the ducks. It was a Sunday and we were probably having one of his famous omelets for breakfast. When I let down the hatch, one of the ducks fell limp. She had died in the middle of the night. I screamed. Everyone came running to see what was the matter.

The other two didn't stay long. They waddled across the street to the lake and stayed there the rest of their lives. They were happy there actually. The mated with some white ducks and then we had multi-colored ducks for the rest of my days living in that town. I wonder if they still do...

I can go on and on and on about my happy childhood in this house and the many fun memories I had. But really it would only be interesting to me.

The reason for this stroll down memory lane? As writers we need to stay in touch with where our stories began. We need to remember what it felt like to be five with a bandanna suitcase, or 13 and cleaning the porch with your sister. Or 28 and sitting on that porch and sharing a kiss with your fiancé (now my happy husband).

I was a writer first in this house. Sometimes looking at old photos can bring you right back in touch with a feeling or a smell or a sound that you can use in your stories.

Try this... Think about your childhood and some event. Right down the first ten things that come to your head. Don't censor yourself. Just right as quickly as you can. Try to include as many of your five senses as possible. Circle the three most descriptive. Then rephrase the fragments into questions. For example - being kissed on my mother's porch. I might have brainstormed these words, soft, gentle, crickets chirping. Then rephrase them into questions... Why was the kiss soft and gentle? Was it because it was the first kiss? Were the crickets chirping as a sign of summer, or approaching fall? And so on. Answering these questions will help uncover even more memories and make them richer and more detailed.

Then ask yourself if you can you use these details some how in your story. Does your MC experience her first kiss? Being in touch with how you felt when you were first kissed will help you write a fuller, richer scene.

A fellow writer friend of mine once said, no matter how I try not to write about myself and my life, I am always surprised to still see myself in my stories. I answered, where ever you go, there you are.

Embrace your memories. Relive them. Right about what you know. Write about who you are. If you do, then you will be writing from your heart, your home...

where your story began.


PJ Hoover said...

A great idea for a writing exercise. And funny enough, Monday I'm off to visit the home of my childhood (4th grade on) for a few weeks. I'll have to think about how it's changed to me.

Sheri Perl-Oshins said...

Hey PJ, thanks. Yes, being in the space should bring back lots of memories.

Have fun!

Rachel Hamby said...

Very cool house and fun memories. Thanks for sharing. I am going to try that exercise. I'm going to get off blogger and do it right now! :)

Sheri Perl-Oshins said...

GoodRachel. Let me know how it works for you. This might really come in handy now that you are (ahem...) writing a novel! :)

Jeanne said...

This is a wonderful piece, Sheri, and I really enjoyed it. My childhood home was also quite small, but seemed so large back then, and I, too, had the tiniest room. Your house is just lovely.
I agree - if we don't write from who we are and what we know, we are lost. It's like me doing math - why do one jot more than I need to? It's just not where I live. I live in the richness of words and images, play and imagination - being home is a good thing, and we who are creative are truly blessed in this way.

Sheri Perl-Oshins said...

Hey Jeanne! Hope you're having a great summer.

Even if we try to write about other stuff, even if we've fooled yourself into thinking we achieved this, in the end, when we go back and read it again, we always find we've crept back in.

Wherever you go, there you are...

jme said...

I remember that house....
Good to know that you are doing well.

Your old friend,


“Personal limitation exists only in our ideas of who we are. Give up all notions of who you are and your limitations will vanish.”

- Anonymous