My Secret Map – Writing Exercise

Linda Lappin’s guest post a few days ago, on “the soul of place,” struck a chord with me (if you haven’t read it yet, back up a post before you read more here). She spoke on maps and how – often – the physicality of layout eclipses a greater meaning.

“We all have our private maps of the neighborhoods, houses, rooms and other places where we have lived.”

“Such maps are uniquely individual to each lover of a place.  No two will be alike. Our private maps attempt to localize and identify the “quality” or spirit of place as it has interacted with us on an individual basis and influenced our lives.”

The writing exercise at the end of her post asks the writer to choose an environment, or a space in time, and explore feelings and experiences associated with that time or place. I read her post and her exercise, and then I pulled out a memoir piece I wrote well over a year ago. The piece is a short essay that grew from writing prompt entitled “where I’m from.” I wrote about the house where I lived from the time I was eleven until I moved out at twenty.

My memories of that house stick with me like the warm sun on the first Spring day, or like the weight of a heavy stone I’m forced to carry. Once in a long while, I drive by the house, to make sure it’s still standing. To remind myself that it was real. To stretch my neck and peer into the windows, looking for life inside.

I worked Linda’s exercise with that memoir piece – that house – in mind. Choosing a few significant places in the house and drawing a sketch of the layout was easy. The bigger challenge came in drawing a line from site to site and writing down a verb that described that connection. I knew each line marked a passage, to safety or discovery. Eventually, I wrote down these verbs: discover, hide, open, close. Another word that rose to the surface – not a verb but still significant – was “secrets.”

After Linda’s exercise, I took two paragraphs from the original piece and rewrote them.

The original text:

That house seized me the first week we moved in. My bedroom wasn’t finished yet, the fancy wallpaper still had to be hung. So I slept upstairs in the exercise room at the other end of the hallway. The room felt huge, with just a bed and no other furniture. There was a door that led to the attic. Strangely, the door could be locked from the outside. To keep something in, I wondered?

That door, in partnership with a large oak tree right outside the window, filled me with fear most nights. I would stand at the doorway, one hand on the light switch and the other pulled back in a running stance. I would click and run, one-two-three steps, then dive onto the bed. I had to time it just right, so that milliseconds after the click I would be safely under covers. If I looked over at the window and saw the tree, I was doomed. So I pulled up the covers and stared at the ceiling until I fell asleep. I hated that room.

The new version:

From the first week we moved in, that house seized me.

My bedroom sat empty at one end of the hallway, the walls chalky and unfinished. The floor bare of any furniture. It smelled of new construction, but it was uninhabitable. For the first several weeks, I slept in the extra room at the other end of the hallway – a space that would later be termed the exercise room.

The exercise room took up twice as much space as a regular bedroom. A window looked out onto a large oak tree that blocked my view of the back yard. Under the shadow of night, the tree morphed into a series of crooked arms.

Opposite the window was a door that led into a walk-in attic. The attic housed some sort of HVAC unit and one of the bull horns for the house alarm system. After we first moved in, the alarm went off at the slightest provocation. If I was in that room when it sounded, I didn’t stay long. One piercing howl from the alarm sent me bolting out the door and down a flight of stairs in two jumps.

And, for reasons unknown, the attic door locked from the outside.

To keep something in, I was sure.

At eleven years old, I stood at the doorway of that room at bedtime, bookended by a crooked old monster and a cave. My only refuge was the bed set up in the middle of the room. I stood at the doorway, one hand on the light switch and the other pulled back in a running stance. I had to time the click of the light and my run to safety just right, so that milliseconds after the light went out, I would be safe under covers.

I focused on the bed, my target. I took a breath. I flipped the switch.

In one-two-three long strides, I was close enough to jump the remaining distance to the bed and slide under the covers. If I looked over at the window and saw the tree, I was doomed. If the house alarm went off, I slept downstairs.

I pulled up the covers and stared at the ceiling until I fell asleep.

Did you try Linda’s exercise? What discoveries came to light as you sketched your secret map?

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6 responses to “My Secret Map – Writing Exercise

  1. I felt your terror in the second version. I haven’t tried the map yet, but it will be interesting to see what emerges.

  2. Thanks, Cathryn. I’ve been reading so much lately on bringing setting to life. Linda’s post and exercise was just one way to attempt that, and it worked well in conjunction with my old essay. I’m glad the second version revealed more feeling. I can’t wait to get back to that piece again.

    I haven’t tried the exercise with a fiction piece yet. So, please keep me updated on how the exercise works for you!

  3. you might consider untangling the perceptions of the room that the child has directly from the explanations of the adult writer in looking back. You might try showing the room, its various “spots” thru the child’s eyes directly, and even starting with the vision she sees while standing in the doorway. Have a look at the famous “red room” passage in Jane Eyre. It’s very inspiring

  4. The short paragraphs (“To keep something in, I was sure.” / “I focused on the bed, my target. I took a breath. I flipped the switch.” / “I pulled up the covers and stared at the ceiling until I fell asleep.”) really spoke to an emphatic style I enjoy myself. They really capture the heartbeat of the character.

    I’ll add this to the list of writing exercises I must try in coming weeks!

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