Writing Prompt #5: The Past, A Personal Essay
I feel it’s time, once again, for a writing prompt. I’ve been painfully lax with them; actually, I’ve outright neglected them.
In fact, I’ve failed entirely at having a consistently updated blog. But alas, I have what I have, and I do what I do. We’ll just have to accept that.
Now, for this writing prompt – the 5th one in 10 Months (shame…) – I have decided to urge you to dig into your past. I’ve recently been reading a lot of personal essays and memoirs. For example, while I’ve never read a single Stephen King novel, I have picked up his book On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft; and I’ve also been reading I Was Told There’d Be Cake by Sloane Crosley.
So, I want us to write a small tidbit based on something from our past. I believe it doesn’t matter how old you are, we’ve all had unique experiences throughout our lives (even if you’re just twelve years old) and chances are that you have a story in you that no one else does – in fact, it’s not a chance, it’s fact.
This is it: Imagine a scene from your past, it can be anything: that time at your grandparent’s house when your cousin threw a baseball through the window and blamed it on you. That time you were in Algebra and burst into tears because you thought a Matrix was just a really cool movie. That time you had your first trip to the hospital for a serious injury.
It doesn’t matter what memory you choose. But once you’ve got one clearly in mind, sit down and recount it. It doesn’t matter if you feel there’s no story in that little incident. All that matters is how you tell it. It can be the most boring moment of your life – waiting 15 minutes at the bus stop in third grade on a cold winter morning with nothing to do til the bus comes – but if you can tell it with familiarity and humor, injecting some of your “grown-up” perspective on that third grade memory then you’ll have succeeded in creating a short piece that almost everyone can relate to.
So the official prompt is:
Imagine a scene from your past. Take that memory and begin writing it out. Let the natural story emerge, don’t try forcing wit and humor into that memory. Just recreate that moment through words.
I believe that if the memory stuck with you so strongly that you can easily recall everything about it, there’s probably a reason. There is probably a great story underlying that memory and that’s what makes you remember it so vividly. You don’t have to try to make it funny or touching or sad – it probably aleady is. Just tell it.
My own response to this prompt:
I was born in 1985, but my life didn’t start til 1992. That was the year that we moved to the country. For those of you who don’t know, there are varying levels of “country” living. My parents owned 5 acres of land, which meant we had an average front yard with a circle drive, a large backyard, two creeks, and our own small wooded area. This is what I like to call small-country. Back then, we had neighbors but they were separated by wild, over-grown fields, more creeks, or wide ponds. But late at night when fog erased them from sight, you could hear people talking out on their porches, and you knew the neighbors were there, not so far away really.
There’s also a level that I like to call real-country. This is where my Grandparents lived (on my mother’s side). They had thousands of acres and operated a real farm – theirs was a dairy farm. There were cows, horses, pigs, chickens, and an insane number of wild cats that shot out at you from all kinds of dark places.
Out there in the real-country people got cow shit on their work boots and knew how to operate combine tractors. For breakfast they ate meat that came from animals they had raised and then sent off for butchering (in my mother’s time, they even did the butchering themselves). They drank milk straight from the cow and fried up eggs that were won after quick but intense battles with territorial roosters (at least, that’s how it was when I collected the eggs… my cousin knew how to trick them so we could swoop in and get the eggs before we were noticed.)
In the real-country they had canyons instead of creeks, large tracts of unexplored land (or so we thought as children), and there were also legitimate dangers: snakes, coyotes, poisonous plants, sudden drop-offs in fields surrounded by loose rock, and spiders. The nearest neighbors were miles away and at night, the quiet was broken only by the rhytmhic pumping of the oil wells, the familiar sounds of the livestock and insects, and the occasional cry of a wandering coyote. Civilization was so far away that we rarely heard cars or trucks unless they were our own, and there were no voices carrying on the breeze because the nearest neighbors were too far.
I lived in small-country, but I like to think I did a lot of my “growing-up” in the real-country. We spent school breaks and holidays at my Grandparents’ house, where we would stay for several days before returning home. Even though my time on the farm was limited because we lived so far away, it had a huge impact on my life and my creative development. There were no computers or arcades, and we didn’t take our toys with us so we thrived on our imaginations.
This explanation of small-country vs. real-country is important because of the way it shaped my childhood. I say that my life began in 1992 because that’s when my memory began to function properly. Prior to that year, I remember very little about my life.
I was a city-girl until I was six years old. I attended Kindergarten and First Grade in a city school; a school that I remember as one giant three-story block of grey stone with windows. A chain-link fence surrounded the school, as much to keep the children in as to keep the creepers out. But now, looking back, this school sits in my mind more like a prison than a school.
The fact of the matter is that my memory was faulty back then (and to some degree, still is today.) The school is, in fact, the typical red-brick of American stereotypes and only has two floors; although, it still gives me the impression of some kind of federal compound.
I played T-Ball and learned to ride a bike. I had friends that lived on the same block as me and in the mornings sometimes my dad would walk us all to school. We went trick-or-treating there, though that’s the only holiday I remember in the city. All of our Christmases and Thanksgivings were out on the farm. The majority of the memories I have from my city-life were given to me by home-video. I watched myself do these things and so these memories are more like scenes from a movie. I don’t recall them the same as I do memories from my small-country life.
I like to think that at six years old, my life in the city was a happy one, and that I loved my house, loved my school, and loved my friends. I mean, what stresses are there for a six year old?
I’d like to say that life after seven was blissful as well. But let me put this transitional period of my life into perspective for you. When I was a child, I loved dresses, and I had a ridiculous number of frilly socks. I was much more girly than I am now.
On my first day of second grade, my frilly socks sealed my fate. It’s tough enough being the new kid, especially when you’re as shy as I am, but when you have twenty other kids pointing and laughing at your frilly socks with the little pink bows on them being the new kid becomes much harder.
“Why’d you wear such fancy clothes to school?”
Apparently, dresses and frilly socks were a big no-no in country-land. Out here all the kids, boys and girls alike, wore t-shirts and jeans or shorts. They were all store-bought too. My mom had a habit of making my clothes for me back then. She’d pick our bright materials, purples and pinks and florals – generally, I had a lot of what I’d now refer to as “noisy” clothes. Homemade clothes were not “cool” in the country.
I spent the first day of school being laughed at. And then when I finally got to go home, when hell was finally over, when I could finally stop hearing harsh, insulting comments about my girly appearance and the sissy bows in my hair – my parents had forgotten about me.
For the first few weeks of school, we were still living in the city. The start of the school year didn’t coincide with the ready-dates on our new house. Therefore, we had one hell of a morning commute for two tired, grumpy kids – almost a 45 minute drive or so. And at the end of our first day, my older brother and I sat on the curb, with our little backpacks – me in my frilly clothes that I now hated – until almost 6PM when my mom got home from work and realized we weren’t there.
For the next ten years, I refused to wear a dress or anything that didn’t have cloth sewn between my legs. I wouldn’t touch frilly socks or decorative socks or any kind of sock that you had to fold over. My mom had to buy me all plain, white ankle socks from then on. I also stopped letting her make my clothes. I stopped wearing hair bows, barrettes, headbands; I even refused to wear my hair down after that. Ponytails were the “cool, tomboy” thing to do, and by God, I was going to be the biggest tomboy I could be. It was my only choice.
By third grade, my transformation was complete. And kids were throwing rocks at me on the playground and refusing to let me join in.
To put it simply, I never learned how to stop being the Weird, New Kid. I tried hard to fit in. I tried hard to be like all the other kids. I tried hard to be someone other than who I was. In leiu of friends my own age, I became the teacher’s pet. Not because I wanted to be the favorite or because I wanted to suck up, but because my teachers were the only ones who showed me the acceptance I was craving. I didn’t make my first real friends until fourth grade.
For me, school only got worse. I never learned how to be like the other kids. I never could get my parents to buy me all the things the cool kids had. I never could afford the kinds of clothes they wore or go on the kinds of vacations they bragged about. Pleasing the teachers made the kids hate me more, which only made me cling to the approval of my teachers that much more. It was a vicious cycle. Eventually, I found myself in middle-school where the teachers seemed to hate me as much as the students.
“Do you hate me? Do you write this small just to get back at me for something?”
“Are you on drugs? Is that why you behave this way?”
“I know you know the answer, but for God’s sake, please put your hand down. Let someone else try.”
“Stop reading ahead of the class. If you’re too good to keep up with the rest of us, you can go spend your time in the counselor’s office and do the work alone.”
I never could get it right after that. High school was my personal nightmare. The bullying wasn’t something to write home about but it was enough to get to me. My locker was routinely used as a trash can, I was shoved into lockers for taking up someone’s space, I was taunted for reading all the time, I was taunted for daydreaming and dozing off during boring lectures, I was taunted for wearing glasses and having acne… Life was difficult.
The hardest part was never knowing what I had done to deserve it. If I’d never been that new kid, would life have been different for me? Would I have been one of those heartless kids, picking on some other new kid instead?
I quickly came to the conclusion that I hated everything about small-country life. It was a sham. A pale imitation of real-country living. I longed for my days on the farm, for my school breaks that would take me away not just from the school but from that whole life. For a few days, I could just be me, the me who loved to daydream, the me who loved horses and exploring, the me who turned canyons into secret, high-tech bases; the me who rode four-wheelers while rounding up cows, pretending I was outrunning secret agents and dodging cars on a highway…
It never mattered who I was or what I did on the farm. I was with my family. I played with my brothers and my cousins and they never judged me. They understood me the way only they could. Even now, I remember what it felt like to lay on the trampoline at night and stare at the stars and talk about how great life would be one day.
That was always some great, fascinating future full of dreams and wonder.
But let me tell you this: one day never comes. All those dreams we had back then have died or are dying slowly.
More than anything, I wish I could return to a care-free real-country life. We dreamt so big as children without realizing what we had. That place, that time, those people – its frozen in time in my heart. The farm was my refuge, my safe-haven. It was a small slice of true happiness. People didn’t ridicule me, they didn’t stuff me into trash cans, they didn’t call me hamburger-face and blow spit wads at the back of my head.
I had that “one day” that I was dreaming of – it was right then and there – and I had no clue. And the fact that I lost it without ever truly appreciating it, that’s what breaks my heart now.
So, there’s my prompt and wow. I have to admit, I didn’t have the slightest clue what I was going to write about when I started. That explains the wandering and blabbering. I also realize that I didn’t particularly tell a story about any specific memory. But that’s okay too – the idea is to write about the past. And just to write.
As long as you get that done, then I say the prompt was successful.
So write on!
If you want to comment on my prompt or leave your own for discussion, as usual, please feel free to do so.