I Know A Place

"From the dawn of man's imagination, place has enshrined the spirit." -- Eudora Welty

If you are Of A Certain Age, you will recognize the title of this post as a song title as well. Sung by Petula Clark in 1965, it's one of the songs on my playlist for the Sixties Trilogy, and it's your notebook assignment for today.

"I know a place where we can go..." Where? Where will you take us?

In 1995, I took a class from a fine poet named Nancy Johnson at Frederick Community College. I had been publishing essays -- personal narrative writing -- for years in newspapers and magazines, I had been writing magazine features and had even been a magazine editor, but now I wanted to turn my attention to fiction. Nancy taught me (among other things) that fiction grows naturally out of personal narrative -- the old "write what you know."

Now I tell my students that story comes from your head, your heart, and your gut: what you know and remember, what you feel, and what you can imagine.

It's hard to write fiction without first understanding your personal narrative -- who you are and where you are from. This is especially important to know when writing with children. It's hard for fourth-graders, say, or middle-schoolers (aren't they beautiful?) or seniors in high school to sustain a fictional world when they haven't explored their own worlds, their own hearts, when they aren't telling their own stories and understanding that those stories have heft and meaning and importance.

One of the first assignments Nancy gave our class was to write about a place. She had us LIST places first -- places we had lived, visited -- every place we could remember, large (Mississippi), small (the fort I made under the stairs), it didn't matter -- but a physical place.

This is where notebooks come in handy. I listed and listed -- I brainstormed away -- nothing was off limits. This exercise was meant to get our memories flowing onto the page so that we could SEE them, physically, and choose one. One. Try it. List... then choose one. Circle it. Choose one place you know, and write about it.

Don't skip the listing step. I still, to this day, begin writing by listing. When I listed for this exercise, "Mississippi" was the word I circled. It was the place I chose to write about. I narrowed it down to Jasper County, Mississippi, and all the summers I spent there with my grandmother (the real Miss Eula), surrounded by the smells of summer and people who would populate my dreams for years to come.

I wrote a poem (more on this Nancy Johnson exercise another day -- if I forget, remind me), and from that poem I began a picture book called MISS EULA GOES TO HAWAII. I sent that picture book manuscript to Liz Van Doren at Harcourt Brace in late 1995, and in February 1996, Liz called me and asked me if I'd be interested in working on this story with her.

Would I? Would I! From the beginnings of trying to write for children to the day of this phone call, ten years had passed. Ten years of rejections, nibbles, more rejections, reading what I wanted to write, practicing, giving up, beginning again, joining a writer's group, leaving a writer's group, finding online support, finding solid resources (including this class at FCC), finding like-minded souls to travel with, and just plain hanging-in-there and refusing to give up -- perseverance. I had stories to tell -- I knew I did. I just needed to figure out HOW to tell them. Listing in my notebook helped me get started.

Two years into working with Liz on this picture book, she still had not bought it, the story got longer and longer, and I found myself writing a novel instead of a picture book. Liz gave me good advice at this point: "Let go of your memories, and tell me a story." And I learned to do that, to make that fictional leap. But all my memories -- all those lists -- were trusses for my stories. Without them, I would have no stories to tell.

I left my day-job (freelancing everywhere) in 1997 in order to focus on what would become LOVE, RUBY LAVENDER. All told, it took me three years to get it right, to make it sellable, and another two years of revision before the book was published in 2001. Along the way, I wrote FREEDOM SUMMER, my first picture book, and sold it to Anne Schwartz at Simon & Schuster. It, too, comes directly out of my life and those notebooks that help me capture my life so I can SEE it, in front of me, in words, images (photographs help), thoughts, doodles.

So.... what places do you know? And which one would you choose to write about today? You don't have to write a novel. Or even a picture book. Not even an essay. How about a sketch? A poem? One paragraph of one moment in time you experienced in that place?

You can see some photos of Ruby's town, my Jasper County, here. I went back and took photos last summer. There are also some photos here, at my Life Notice on my website.

The places I'm showing you today were taken last week, during my scoot through Prince Georges County, Maryland; Frederick, Maryland; Washington, D.C.; and western Maryland. I've used my notebook to journal about each stop. I have photographs. And boy, do I have stories.

Any one of those memories I could mine for story. The present echoes the past... or does the past echo into the future? What I know is that my personal narrative -- my history -- informs my fiction.

RUBY is fiction, of course, pulled from personal narrative (as is LITTLE BIRD and ALL-STARS). RUBY narrates a place I knew, remembers it in the golden light I loved to remember it in. FREEDOM SUMMER is also fiction, also pulled from personal narrative, and it narrates that same place in its not-so-shiny light. Both stories are true emotionally. And that's what I'm going for, in my fiction: emotional truth.

Fiction starts with discovering the emotional truth of your own life -- which can change, actually, with a deeper understanding of the people, places, and events that have defined you.

So pick that place. "You're gonna love this place I know." You can hear the song, sung by Petula Clark, here on YouTube. (Volume up! You can dance better that way.)

List, list, list. Pick your place. Pick one experience there. One clear moment in time. Circle it. Write short. Be true. Use telling details, and all your senses. If you need to write long at first, that's fine... you can cut later, and you can revise as your reason for writing about this particular place emerges... this is a gift of process.

Then write me -- share it with us -- what place do you know?

Place is the backbone of story.

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