I was lucky enough to take a workshop last week at Western Connecticut State University with Liz Rosenberg, poet and children's writer. The topic discussed was writing from memory about place. Per Liz, if you can start writing from place, you can write for anyone.
A place, according to Liz, can be as big or small as you want it to be. A place can be a portal. It can be as much a character as a setting for a story.
As with all writers' workshops, we participated in two writing exercises. The first was to describe a place from our childhood that had changed over time. The second was to describe our childhood bedroom at night or a special place we would go as a child that felt safe.
For the first I chose to describe the neighborhood streets in the north end of Bridgeport, a place I used to play often as a child given I went to a parochial school there for my first six grades. Although I lived in neighboring Fairfield, family tradition found me, as the last child, crossing the border each weekday morning and afternoon. Since most of my friends were from school, I spent many afternoons playing with my friends at their homes in Bridgeport. As backyards were quite smaller than in the suburbs, we often played in the streets that "were tree-lined, tall, stoic Maples, if I remember correctly, lined up like the guards in front of Buckingham Palace. They were guarding all of us children who played in the streets, because that's what you did in those days in Bridgeport...I often played on the tree-lined streets with hardly a care. Laughter, jacks, 4-squares. Asphalt roads were perfect for chalk lines and bouncing balls."
Bridgeport has changed a lot since then. In my description "I drove through the north end of Bridgeport recently, after a dentist appointment, I don't know why. The trees were tired, bent over, holding on. No children were in the streets playing so there was no one to guard. Just the forsaken man in a white beater T, barefoot, with a brown paper bag his companion. The laughter was gone from the streets and from my soul. I turned the corner and drove away."
I've thought a lot about place since the workshop and was amazed tonight to flash back to another Bridgeport memory - the King Cole supermarket at the corner of Park and North Avenue. I sometimes have vivid mental snapshots come back about this store. I remember it big, really big, with lots of checkout aisles. I remember big glass doors automatically opening when we walked in. Somehow I see an expansive section of fruits and vegetables to the right of the store. But what I remember most was a big rolling mechanism that moved groceries from inside the store to outside.
Of course today with Google, I was able to find an article about the King Cole Supermarket and I'm happy my memory didn't play tricks on me. The grocery store was something for its time, according to the writer. The rolling mechanism was a way to help customers get their groceries to their cars more easily. The story also cited the holiday decorations, which I now vaguely remember. Also mentioned were exotic gourmet foods. I don't remember that, but perhaps my family wasn't so adventuresome in regards to culinary delights back then.
Writing from a place is a wonderful starting point, whether you are searching for a story idea or working on a journal or memoir. Try the exercise we did. Take five minutes to write freely about your memories of a place from your childhood that has changed over time. Describe it in detail. You will begin to see images in your mind that may have been long forgotten.