We’re off to a start of a new semester here at Ohio State University, and I’m teaching an advanced undergraduate creative nonfiction workshop. I came up with a writing activity for our first meeting–with a nod toward Dinty Moore whose own activity inspired this one–and I want to pass it along to you. The activity is designed to generate material, while also inviting some consideration of how to make that material have depth and significance.
The first step is easy. What’s a favorite toy from your childhood, or what’s the toy you always wanted that you never got? The indirect path to the weightier material often goes through a simple object. I still remember how much I loved playing with my Lincoln Logs when I was a kid. I built cabins and covered them with the green roofs each set contained. I always wanted a Bobo doll, one of those inflatable dolls, as big as I was when I was a kid, with a weighted bottom. You could punch it and it would teeter but it would never fall over. It would come back so you could punch it again. That’s the toy I never got until a few years ago when one of my students gave me one.
The second step involves scene-building, and scene-building is often the result of daydreaming. So give yourself permission to fall into a trance. Daydream about you playing with your favorite toy. Maybe you’ll remember where you were when you got it. Maybe you’ll remember having to beg for it. Maybe you’ll remember playing with it, and the pleasure it brought you. Or maybe you’ll remember longing for a toy you never got, imagining yourself playing with it. Maybe you’ll remember being told that you couldn’t have it. Maybe some painful moments will surface in your memory. Don’t resist them. Lean into them. Feel them again.
Then write a scene in which you, as a child, either have the toy or want the toy. Where are you? What’s the weather like? Who’s in the room with you? What are they saying? What are you saying? What are you doing? Write this as if you’re objectively observing the child you were. You might want to write in the third person, or the second person, or you might want to write solely in the child’s perspective, from the first person point of view, limiting yourself to only what the child could know. Make sure to include at least two visual details, one tactile detail, and one sound. Be as specific as you can. The writer’s first job is to convince a reader, and the way to do that is through the particulars.
What you’ve written so far is mere nostalgia, and, as we all know, nostalgia is usually only interesting to the person recalling the details. You now need to think about what was happening in your life at the time. What was going on in your family, with your friends, at school, at church, or in the larger world outside yourself? We give nostalgia weight by letting the child’s world intersect with the adult world. What was uncertain for you at the time of the experience or else in the years and years after it? What do you wish you knew? What are you going to investigate? What questions do you have?
Begin a further investigation of the material by writing about the scent you always associate with your childhood home, school, church, etc? Then write about your mother’s hair. Finally write about your father’s hands. Your objective is to begin to peel back layers of the material by letting details associated with it invite your thinking aloud on the page.
End by completing this sentence: “I want/wanted. . . .” Or, “I wish/wished. . . .” Or, “I need/needed. . . .” Or, “I always wondered. . . .” Or, “Maybe I’ll always wonder. . . .”
Naturally, you should feel free to modify these prompts however will best suit you. The important thing is to daydream your way into the past, give that past weight and significance, and let it lead to a curiosity. This combination should lead you to an essay, one that has a story to tell that will help you think more fully about a past experience that may connect to issues you continue to ponder in your adult years.