Lately, I’ve been writing about my childhood. And before that, I was writing about my childhood. And years ago, as a child, I wrote about my childhood. No doubt, for my remaining years, I will write about my childhood.
Poet and teacher Edward Hirsch likes to remind his students that Rainer Maria Rilke asserted there are two inexhaustible sources for poetry: dreams and childhood. I suggest we pay attention to that thought.
Hirsch advises: “Try to dredge up something otherwise neglected or forgotten, something with special retrospective significance”.
There are many methods. No doubt you’ve developed some of your own. Here is one of my favorite approaches to mining the past.
The Transformation Line (via Jack Grapes): Begin with a simple journal entry; just write about your present life, in the first person. After a short while, stop and examine what you have written. You are looking for a “transformation line”, which, for practical purposes is any sentence with the word “I” in it, and a verb. A recent example from my own journal is this: “I cringe at the thought of growing fat again”. Now, here’s the magic. Forget about the sentence as written and focus on the subject/verb: “I cringe”. That’s all: “I cringe”. Play with it. Massage it. What associations does it bring up? Be careful you don’t just use it as a prompt to finish the sentence as in, “I cringe at eating liver… I cringe at sappy music…” etc. You are after something wider and deeper. In my example, my associations went like this: “I cringe. I am embattled. I am always under attack. I feel overwhelmed. I am so small. Monsters surround me”.
Working this way, you will eventually find your way to an image from memory. Maybe several. Often from early childhood. In my case, images from “I cringe” include having a baseball come at me in Little League, being afraid to get on the roller coaster at an amusement park, and going alone to my attic bedroom after watching a scary movie when I was 9 years old. Once I have the image, I’m on my way to a poem.
The key point here is that one doesn’t begin by thinking about the past. You begin with the present journal entry and a verb. Working this way, you are able to utilize unconscious associations to find your way into the past. That is what allows you to go deep. I might have sat down and consciously decided, “I want to write a poem about fear”, and then come up with a whole bunch of images including the roller coaster, the baseball, and the attic stairs. But the process would be less organic and the images would probably be less vivid.
It’s about discovering themes I didn’t even know I wanted to explore.
Once you find your image, you can choose for yourself where to go with it. I generally spend a good deal of time working on the details and then winnowing down. In the case of the attic staircase, I might begin exploring the shape of the shadows, the feel of the carpet on my bare feet, the sounds of the household from the lower floors, the look of the wallpaper lit by the single overhead lightbulb, etcetera.
Experiment. I would be surprised if you are not pleased with the results.
– Charles Kruger
The Storming Bohemian