A Writer’s Notebook: Mapping a story

This past Tuesday, I visited Zayed University to speak to an education class studying youth literature and preparing to write young adult stories of their own. (I’ll write a fuller post on this experience later this weekend.) We talked about books they were reading and how they might begin to write their own stories. The students’ assignment, which they begin next week, will be rooted in their own past, based on their memories, their own culture, their own unique identities as young Emirati women.

Many of them have never written creatively before, and those who have primarily work in poetry (a great foundation, I told them!). So before I left their class on Tuesday, I promised I’d use this week’s Writer’s Notebook to try an exercise similar to the assignment they’re preparing for: I’d find an exercise based on personal memory and write a story rooted in that.

This small essay/story is that exercise.

The first girl I thought I might kiss was my back yard neighbor, Kay. We were both in the third grade, and while I certainly wasn’t in love with her, she was a great friend and, as I was increasingly becoming aware, a girl. So why shouldn’t I kiss her? We’d done a lot together in the few short years I’d lived in Port Neches, Texas: we ate bitter, wild grapes off the vine we found in her back yard, we smoked the poisonous butt of a discarded cigarette we’d picked from the dirt in the alley between our back yards, we waved at each other when I climbed the big tree in my backyard and sometimes, after my father built me an epic two-story wooden playhouse next to the tree, Kay would come over to climb the ladder to the second level and peer out across the neighborhood.

On humid summer nights we’d walked across the street to the shallow canals that lined one end of our neighborhood, watching for fireflies. When my father took me down to those canals on the Fourth of July and showed me how to throw cheap cork smoke bombs into the canals to leave an eerie, multicolored fog over the dark water, Kay came out to join us.

I had given up riding my old red bike after a nasty spill when I was five, and it was partly to hang out with Kay that I braved the bicycle again at age seven. She rode her banana-seated bike from the canal end of the street clear down to the bustling traffic and fast food joints and tiny corner stores along the main street at the other end of our neighborhood. I wasn’t allowed to ride my bike down to that end of the street — my mother worried about the traffic — but I longed to join my friend on tours of 5th Street.

So it wasn’t terribly surprising that afternoon in third grade when I found myself in Kay’s bedroom, noticing for the first time just how pink and lacy the bedspread was, how many dolls she had, how decidedly GIRLY she was, that I decided I might want to kiss her. I wondered how I might go about it: should I just lean in and go for it? Should I ask her first? Should I try to make a game of it? I knew some kids played doctor, but I wasn’t at all certain what the rules were. I knew on TV that people would tilt their heads in opposite directions as they pressed their faces together — and sometimes they would switch directions mid-kiss — but I never really understood why. Should we sit on her bed, or should we stand in the middle of the room?

It’s a sign of just how young we both were that I never thought of more practical concerns, like, did I actually think of Kay in that way, or how did my breath smell, or would she taste of wild grapes.

But what I remember most of that day was how long I took to make up my mind. We’d been in her room for ages, and things were starting to get awkward. In my child’s memory, I swear I must have sat there for 30 minutes or more, but in reality we might have been in Kay’s room for only 10 minutes. Either way, neither of us had said anything the whole time, and I could tell even then that I was starting to make Kay nervous. Which is when I realized how nervous I was, too, and how maybe, in the end, I didn’t really want to kiss Kay after all. If I’d been older — maybe 12, or maybe 35 — I’d have said I didn’t want an experimental kiss to get in the way of our friendship. But I was only eight, and I just knew that while the idea of kissing Kay felt exciting, it also felt a bit icky, and maybe I wasn’t quite ready to kiss girls after all.

Not long after that, my dad took a job halfway across Texas and we all packed up and moved. I don’t even remember saying goodbye to Kay. Maybe I’d forgotten in the hustle and confusion of the move, or maybe, like tiny adults, we’d somehow drifted apart after the awkwardness of that almost-kiss.

Years later, when I was on a road trip during my college years, I passed through Port Neches and found my old neighborhood. I stopped outside my house but I didn’t knock on the door or peer into the back yard. It had been someone else’s home for more than a decade, and I didn’t want to disturb my memories of it. But I did peek into the alley behind my house. It looked the same. I even found an old cigarette butt in the dirt. I leaned on the fence and looked into Kay’s back yard. The wild grape vine was gone. The concrete on the back patio had cracked several years ago. The window of what used to be Kay’s bedroom was dark, her bright floral curtains gone. But somewhere in the neighborhood I heard children laughing, and when I returned to my car and drove back up 5th Street to the old main drag, the traffic and bustle there far less dangerous now than my mother had ever made it out to be, I had to brake once to let a small gang of kids ride past on their bikes.

This exercise is actually in two parts, both from the chapter on memory in Bill Roorbach‘s excellent writing guide, Writing Life Stories.

Exercise One: Mapmaking. Please make a map of the earliest neighborhood you can remember. Include as much detail as you can. Who lived there? What were the secret places? Where were your friends? Where did the weird people live? Where were the friends of your brothers and sisters? Where were the off-limits places? And so forth.

This is my map:

Exercise Two: Map Story. Once you’ve made your map, it’s time to write. Here’s the assignment: Tell us a story from your map. “One day back in Anchorage….” — and off you go, elaborating on your recollection [. . .]. Don’t edit yourself much; don’t try for anything finished. The story needn’t be long. A couple of pages is fine (but keep going if you get inspired).

I don’t know where this story would go — it still doesn’t feel finished — nor could I swear to just how true this story is. A lot of what I’ve written here is based on my memories, but as a fiction writer, I’ve gotten into the habit of embellishing my memories and filling in gaps with details that FEEL right but might not be 100% true, and if I were to develop this story more fully, I’d probably turn it into fiction.

But that’s the beauty of this exercise: it can result in fiction or nonfiction alike. And in fact, half the class I spoke to is reading Ibtisam Barakat‘s Tasting the Sky, a memoir; and the other half is reading Naomi Shihab Nye‘s Habibi, a work of semi-autobiographical fiction (Nye was kind enough to exchange some e-mails with me regarding her book and some questions the students had asked during my visit, and she’s agreed to let me share some of that exchange in my blog post later, so keep an eye out for it).

So there you have it, Zayed University students: here is one way to use your personal memories to lead to a story, either fiction or nonfiction. I hope it works for you and for all my readers! And, as always, feel free to share your results!

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