By Jerry Waxler
When I explore my memories of adolescence, one of two things happens. Either I draw a blank or I land on a random bit of my past that contributes little to my memoir. Darn that mind. Why can’t I just sit down and develop the story of me? To move past this impasse and extract relevant information from the confusing cloud of memories, I rely on a series of writing prompts.
Writing Prompt 1: To learn about a scene, pick a detail and stretch
I want to remember high school which is hard for me because that whole period is foggy. I’ve found that if I have one fact, I can start from there and extend my memory from one fact to the next. So I stir the pot and a single image floats by – home room, where a teacher took attendance, made announcements, and then sent us on our way. I remember nothing. Then I see one person. I sat next to a guy named Wanenchak. But I don’t remember anything about him. Well, I do remember a little. He was trim, had light hair, and was a nice guy. Bit by bit, one fact leads to another, putting words and descriptions on hazy times. Wanenchak was Greek Orthodox. I didn’t know what that meant so I asked him. That’s one more fact about him, and it also divulges an interesting fact about me. I was terribly withdrawn, so the fact that I remember his religion tells me that despite my lack of attention to fellow classmates, I was interested in this dimension. While the exercise has not yet burst open the doors to an unforgettable scene, it did yield some raw material I didn’t have when I started.
Writing prompt 2: List key events, transitions, and influences
Even though high school feels vague, if I step back and scan those four years, highlights emerge from the haze. These noteworthy facts don’t in themselves tell a story, but they add to my understanding and perhaps will provide valuable raw material. Here’s a list I developed by looking for major events.
- Influential teachers: Mr. Warshaw, my ninth grade math teacher started me on a path of love for math, and Mr. Hofkin, the science teacher in my senior year, established my curiosity about physics.
- Sports: I never played any ball sports, but since I was an incessant walker, I hoped I could survive the rigors of track. I was wrong. A few weeks of waking up before dawn to train for track and field I had to drop out with excruciating shin splints.
- My failure to stick with the English honors program: Despite my passion for reading, I never really understood what English teachers were trying to get me to do, so while I remained in the math and science honors class I was excluded from English. This always made me feel like an outsider.
- Crash! I went on two dates in four years. One of my two dates ended in a car crash when I was so distracted I ran a red light.
Writing Prompt 3: To find the framework, look for desire
To create a story worth reading, I’m going to need emotions. I can’t write about romance. I didn’t have any. It was an all-boys high school and I worked every weekend at my dad’s drugstore. Where else can I look for drama? I ask myself, “What did I want?” and in answer, I see my two friends, Joe and Ed. I desperately wanted to be accepted by these guys. So I try to find scenes that represent my desire.
Joe was a strikingly handsome soccer player, and second in our all academic school. His dad was a steelworker, and the large family lived in a small row home, three kids to a room. One day in the lunch room, without provocation or warning, Joe threw a glass of chocolate milk on my clean white shirt. Standing there feeling defiled, with the brown liquid soaking into my chest, I searched his face for some clue that might explain why he had done it. Instead of apologizing, he seemed amused and curious, as if he was studying my response.
In another scene, I was in my kitchen at home talking to my friend Ed on the phone. We all lived pretty far away from each other because Central High in Philadelphia was a citywide school, and kids commuted there from all over the city. Ed was a Jewish intellectual who was becoming increasingly committed to his religion. He had asked me what I believed in, and I didn’t offer a clear enough answer. He told me I was worthless because I don’t believe in something enough to die for it. I started to cry.
These scenes are more than interesting moments. They build the framework of a story about three 16 year old boys trying to use their developing intellect to understand the morality of life. I’m ahead of Joe. At least I don’t need to experiment to find out what it feels like to hurt a friend. But I’m not yet up to Ed. Even though his delivery is cruel, he’s right. I haven’t yet figured out what I believe.
Out my hazy memories of high school I unearth more and more raw material, and begin to see a structure. This is the power of writing prompts. They stimulate thoughts along a particular line, and shake loose a variety of memories and ideas I didn’t even realize were in there. I brainstorm at the detail level to describe characters and settings. I brainstorm highlights, the main events that provide substance. And to find the emotion that propels me through those events I look for desire. Gradually I begin to gather the pieces of a compelling story.
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