Many of the personality traits you've developed, many of your likes and dislikes, your hopes and fears, have been with you since you've been a small child. An early encounter with a vicious dog may have colored your attitude toward all dogs to this day. The people who raised you when you were small shaped many of your opinions and feelings about the world. Your reaction to things you didn't appreciate about your childhood have caused you to live your life, and perhaps raise your own children, differently.
Your past can be an endless source of material for your creative writing. It was Eudora Welty who said that anyone who has survived childhood should have enough material to write about to keep them busy for life. Your past, and your reaction to it, can also tell you something about who you are.
Like a treasure map that has faded with weather and time, many of your childhood experiences are faded, obscure. You may remember one or two moments from the year you were five years old. Perhaps you know what you did on your birthday, and you remember the first day of kindergarten. Though these memories are great ones to start with, as you delve into them you will start to remember more. As you unlock your own past, you may indeed find enough material to keep you busy for life.
Exercise: Pick a strong memory from your childhood -- a big event, or a particularly scary one. Begin to write everything you remember about it. Write as if it is happening in present tense, and write it as you see it through your present, grown-up eyes. Feel free to analyze your reactions, to tell about things going on in the background that, as a child, you may not have been aware of. Were your parents close to divorce at the time, though you didn't know it yet? Was it one of the last times you saw a relative of yours alive? As you write, observe the details that come back to you, and observe that this memory, once you explore it, starts to call forward other memories. Even after you finish and put this writing aside, you will find yourself remembering more details. Jot them down if you can. Tack more details on the end of your piece. You can rework it later if you want to.
During another writing session, pick the same or another memory, and write it through a child's eyes. Try your best to think the way you thought then. Take care not to mention anything that you couldn't be aware of. Beware of analysis from an adult perspective. This time, focus on the sights and sounds around you. How did the world look to you then, when you were young, and so many things were happening for the first time. Children have a sense of wonder about things in the world they will later consider mundane. Recapture that childlike sense. It will serve you well as a writer.
What do you believe? What do you feel strongly about? National Public Radio has lately been running a series of personal essays by people famous and not-so-famous called "This I Believe." If you were asked to write and deliver such an essay, what would you say? In the movie "Bull Durham," Kevin Costner's character delivers a list of his personal beliefs: "I believe Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone. I believe in long, slow kisses that last all night." Though the items on his list don't seem at first related, together, they give a picture of his personality and character to the audience, and to the love interest he is wooing on the screen. If you had such a list, what would be on it?
While the creative writer rarely goes on and on about herself in her writing, her biases, attitudes, and beliefs, nevertheless, inform everything she says. By the details she places in her work, the types of people and places she writes about, and the unspoken messages between the lines, we get a sense of our favorite authors even as they write in the voices of imaginary characters. As writers, it is useful to know ourselves well. As you practice your writing, have a conversation with yourself. Who are you? What matters to you the most? What do you love? What do you hate?
Exercise: Make your own "Bull Durham list." Write ‘I believe in…' Or ‘I believe that…' and fill it in with something you believe. Make this list as long as you can. Our minds our very large, and there is a lot we can believe. Put as much variety on your list as you want, and feel free to believe in things that are both world-changing and trivial. Here's an example to get you started:
I believe in the power of forgiveness. I believe no one should put ketchup on their hot dog. I believe that Winnie the Pooh was our greatest philosopher. I believe in the power of a song to change the world. I believe in rainstorms and warming up by fireplaces. I believe that love will conquer hatred. I believe in the virtues of vegetarian cooking. I believe that double cheeseburgers are a gift from God.
Another common writing rule is, "Write what you know." If you write on topics or places you know well, your writing will be more present, more believable. Ernest Hemingway's novels were all based on personal experience. As a journalist and an adventurer, he lived a pretty interesting life. He drove an Italian ambulance during World War I, hunted big game in Africa, covered the Spanish Civil War.
The important thing is not to take this rule too much to heart, though. Do you have to be a doctor to write about doctors? No. A private Investigator to write detective novels? No again.
What if you're an accountant who hasn't been outside of the United States in your life? Does this mean there's no hope for you as a writer? Not at all. You know things, too. While your profession might not, in itself, make great reading, you know a lot more than you think. Look at the people you work with. Listen to conversations at the water cooler. Someone you know well may be sick with cancer, going through a nasty divorce. In your personal life you have dealt with loss, fear, and also joy, bliss. If you have lived on this planet for a while, you know things. They are the same things Hemingway wrote about. Though his novels were set in fascinating locations, they were really about people, and the everyday drama that fills people's lives. You can research location. You can learn enough about a place or a time to imagine life there. What you really need to know is what it's like to be human.
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