As a teacher I’m always looking for new ways to help my students remember experiences from their past to develop story ideas. In one effective classroom exercise, I ask students to draw the floor plan of their childhood home, sketching in where the walls were, drawing little boxes to indicate furniture placement. My students are always surprised how many memories come flooding back–memories of incidents both good and bad, holiday celebrations, the smell of their mother’s cooking, the feel of the sofa upholstery, conversations with relatives, feelings of happiness, inadequacy, fear, etc. Try this exercise sometime. It’s amazing the number of story ideas that will come to you.
On another occasion I asked my students to bring to class a souvenir from their high school days. Some complained that they hadn’t saved anything, so I told them to draw a picture of something they’d like to bring if they still had it. A few followed my suggestion, bringing in a drawing of a cherished trophy that had been lost, a special dress made in sewing class, a beloved jalopy that had been restored. Sometimes the act of drawing can resurrect more memories and feelings than the actual, tangible piece of memorabilia.
My drawing exercises prompted one of my students, Alice, to think about all the beautiful dresses her mother had made for her when she was growing up, and the dresses she had made herself as a fledgling seamstress. Alice no longer possesses these dresses, but she remembers them in detail, so she drew them from her memory and wrote brief stories about them that capture a bit of her past. For example…
“My best friend Lois and I made dresses alike in eighth grade Home Ec. They were made of a tiny yellow gingham check fabric with an embroidered border print of pastel flowers. We modeled them together at the Mother-Daughter Tea. Lois never sewed again. I put her zipper in for her, as she was very behind schedule. She got a D on it. I got an A, with a thank you from the teacher for helping Lois.”
“Mama made this dress and won a blue ribbon at the grange. The fabric was a crisp cotton in a wild striped print. I don’t recall just how the sleeves ended. The colors were pink, yellow, black, and white. The yoke and collar were white pique. The three buttons looked like three yellow daisies. The yoke was trimmed in the latest thing: jumbo bright yellow rick-rack. Mama wore her thin black patent leather belt with it. About 1956.”
Alice found this exercise a valuable way to revisit a time in her past she hadn’t thought about in years. The process of sketching her dresses cemented them in her memory the same way writing about them would have.
Experiment with this expercise. Draw the floor plan of your childhood home, or a later home that was memorable. Or how about your grandparents’ home? The first home you bought after you married? Your playhouse? Your doll house? Your erector set monstrosity? Your science fair project? Your back yard? Your first car? The layout of your school? Your church? Your neighborhood? Don’t stew about making your drawings artistic creations. Be loose and have fun with the project. Let your mind drift back to the past and as memories come to you, jot them down as possible story ideas.
When I ask my students to draw their childhood home in my class, I then assign them to go home and write about that house, while the memories are still vivid in their minds. You should do the same. Capitalize on the emotion your sketching generates and use it to write a memorable, engaging story.
Try it and let me know how it goes.