Word by Word

Practical insights for writers from Jessica P Morrell

Going Home

Written By: Jessica Morrell - Oct• 03•11

Going Home

Jessica P. Morrell

Nostalgia is a file that removes the rough edges from the good old days.  ~Doug Larson

Last month I went home to the small town in northern Wisconsin where I lived until I was fourteen. The occasion was my father’s 80th birthday and I found a place changed by time, and sometimes as I drove down the streets it seemed that I was seeing it for the first time because the reality of this place doesn’t match what exists in my memory and dreams.

I experienced the biggest gap between now and memory when at night the fireflies didn’t appear with their tiny inner lanterns. An uncle suggested they liked open meadows, a brother said they had them in their Illinois backyard. I since have learned that their best habitat includes standing water and long grass, and since the house I grew up was located near a creek and surrounded by meadows, I understand why I didn’t spot any in the town, city, and lakesides that we stayed in. But I was disappointed since I live in the West where fireflies mostly don’t exist and they were everywhere at night when I was a girl, they were part of dusk, part of dark, lighting the shadows and night and our gladiator arena where we played nighttime games and laughed about ghosts and spooks.

As writers we all need to return in memory to the places of childhood or our roots because without memory our writing cannot represent us fully and cannot be well-charged with emotion and sensory detail. We need to visit our origins to understand this queer pastime we’ve chosen, the reasons for why we became a person whose most absorbed and passionate hours are spent arranging and re-arranging words. Because going home illuminates our grown-up lives and if you’re a writer there are no forgotten children and there is always shelter and sky and seasons.

Even without knowing it, we all write from a sense of place and from the jumble of our pasts. And in these pasts were our confused emotions and hurts and secrets, the seed or source of our writing.  Going home you can find your first literary idols and the library with its smell of books and wood and rain. You can find the specificity of detail that brings a place, and thus a story to life. Going home you might find the haunts and shadows, or the impetus for your feral imagination.

We can never truly recover our pasts, not even if we have reams of photographs and grainy films and boxes of childhood trophies. But we can search for them, and we can use sojourns into the land of memory as inspiration, or even a road map for writing.  Memory and storytelling are as linked as right hand, left hand joining forces on a keyboard to shape words.  We can trace our family dynamics or our cousin’s family dynamics into a story remembering if things were tense or easygoing or if secrets lurked.  We can mine the senses, feel the intensity of times past, especially feelings of vulnerability or not knowing.

Unspooling the past we recognize how it adds breath and energy to our writing. That writing from experience, even if it’s emotional experiences, as opposed to actual experiences, has huge value. You ask yourself questions about your simple desire to tell stories and why your eight-year-old self wrote spy stories or horror tales and poems.

From the safe perch of adulthood I look back at the girl I was with all her longings, passions, and black-hearted jealousies. I can feel the keys of my Royal typewriter I owned as a girl, can see the desk I sat at, filled with such importance that I had my own desk, my own place to write.  I find my clumsy metaphors, my girlhood griefs, the big and small cruelties of childhood, the words stuck or stalled in my throat, the bottled-up anger at small and large injustices,  the insecurities and obsessions, the joys of running along the creek and playing games of make-believe, the breadcrumbs that lead to my starting point as a writer.

When going home you find the music of previous eras the songs that tug you back in time yet live on. You never forget these lyrics and their reminders of heartbreak or first love, or the giddiness of youth. It’s all there, the richness and texture and tangle of memory, the old and retold stories.  At times the soft edges of the past and sharp lines of the present clash and groan like winter ice breaking up in the spring. And as we write from memory, more memories arrive, and with memory comes associations and inspirations and more stories. And we find patterns, sometimes that have gone unnoticed for years, threading through events and truths and discoveries.

But mostly when you go home, you see stories, a narrative, everywhere in the remembered and the now.  Stories practically grow on trees and swim in the familiar air. The air of my past is heated and bathed in humidity and my grown up body finds these temperatures unbearable, but the baked summers of my childhood were spent in creeks and rivers, not air conditioning and summer arriving always returns me to childhood.

Of course we’ve changed from that person of past decades. It’s natural to grow and evolve and have new strivings and yearnings. But retrieve why you became a writer in the first place. The why of your writing self. Become a detective, a seeker after the treasure of your desires.

Go home to make peace with your past, with the pains and sorrows and lessons of all that was. This is not a sentimental journey, rather it’s an un-rosy pilgrimage, a necessary voyage.

Driving through my former hometown the streets were unpeopled and sleepy, the yards unoccupied, the windows blank. It seemed like a sound stage, when it wasn’t amplified by emotions and memories. The downtown is now mostly cell phone stores, secondhand shops, and auto parts stores.  Missing was the J.C.Penney department store, the Woolworths and Ben Franklin, the shoe stores, dress stores, the daily newspaper office, the mom and pop bakeries, and family-owned diners.

While the downtown has withered, the town has blossomed on the outer edges near a freeway exit with chain motels, a Subway, McDonalds, a Wal Mart where you’ll find more people than anywhere else, a Piggly Wiggly, Dollar Store and Hallmark store. But there is still the majestic court house with its four-sided clock, the many graceful churches planted amid quiet neighborhoods, the library where I spent so much time as a girl which now houses some of my books. The legacy of the forest industry visible in the blocks of  grand historic homes as well as in the forests that surround the town.

The Wisconsin River winds through the town, splashing over rocks and dams before joining the Mississippi. When I think back it’s the place where the sound of rivers and streams have slipped into my blood, a great birthplace for a writer. We all know that time changes us and places and things, but for writers the question is how.

Note: This column was written in August, 2010

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