When the urge to write is not accompanied by a promising subject or theme, one possibility for answering the writing call is to begin with an image, a scene—any image, any scene. Then free associate, letting one image, one scene, lead to the next, no matter how circuitous the path through memory. Taken together, the seemingly random recollections create a sketch of the past and suggest ways the past has led to the present. Here’s a short example of the approach that does, in fact, help to remind me of who I was, and still am. If I choose, I can mine these memories for subjects to explore in more depth.
I carried my pink ballet slippers in a blue case decorated with a felt ballerina.
I liked spending school lunch hours in the clearing under the weeping willow beyond our playground. I wove bracelets from the long willow branches, but I don’t remember wearing or even keeping the bracelets. The act of braiding the pliable thin branches was the pleasure, much as with making clover chains in the front yard at home. With my fingernail I poked a slot near the end of the stem of one clover and inserted the stem of the next through the slot. Sometimes I put a clover crown on my head or tested a clover jump rope, but any such usefulness was superfluous. I imagine Daddy had to deal with piles of discarded clover chains when he mowed the grass.
One afternoon when I was in first grade, I was showing off my handstand skills for a neighbor girl and a boy from school. When I flipped over after the handstand, I sat in a pile of manure that the girl’s dog had left behind. My patient mother took crying me to a sink in our basement to clean off the mess. I was mortified by the outcome of my effort to impress my friends.
Daddy made me a pair of wooden stilts, and I was proud of being able to tramp around the yard on them.
When I was small, Mother helped me bake a chocolate cake. A picture from that afternoon shows frosting smeared across my smile.
Mother told me I once said, “It’s the frossin’ what makes it good.”
We put salt or sugar on grapefruit in those days to cut the sour taste; I preferred sugar.
I made meatloaf for some of my fellow teachers at the boarding school where we taught. I put eggs, ketchup, and breadcrumbs in my meatloaf, which was the centerpiece of my most reliable menu. When my friend David came to eat meatloaf with me one night, my dog, Maggie, chewed his wallet, so I had to buy him a new one. I don’t recall having to replace any cash.
On the first evening David and I were in Germany with the students we were chaperoning, I asked him how to say, “Could I please have some change?” in German. On subsequent days, when I had a chance to get away from David and the students, I used my phrasebook to figure out how to meet my needs.
When I was fourteen or fifteen, I cried listening to Gerry and the Pacemakers’ “Don’t Let the Sun Catch You Crying.” I wanted a boyfriend—if not a Beatle then one of the boys at school.
Ringo was my favorite Beatle, probably because in the early days he looked more like a little boy than like an intimidating young man who might reject me.
My love for Ringo—if not my affection—faded by the time I was in college. My love for Andrea Bocelli hasn’t diminished in twenty-two years.
When I was six, Santa Claus gave me a record player in the form of a small blue suitcase. Coordinating with Santa that Christmas, my parents gave me two records. The first included Tchaikovsky’s The Nutcracker and The Sleeping Beauty. The second was Haydn’s Surprise Symphony and the Toy Symphony, then attributed to Haydn but now more often attributed to Leopold Mozart, Wolfgang’s dad. Even after we moved to our new home, I often rolled up the small blue hooked rugs in my bedroom so I could dance to a Tchaikovsky ballet playing on my little record player.
Sunlight filtered through light-green leaves on the first morning after the last day of school.
At summer camp in Maine, after we campers were in bed, the camp director’s Doberman thundered down the cabin line like a galloping pony.
When I was a camp counselor, I played taps on my flute in the evening. The sound drifted out over the lake as infinite stars drifted overhead. The Milky Way was a broad stripe across the sky.
And so, as perhaps these memories suggest, it’s nearly impossible not to be able to write if the mind is set free to jump here, there, and anywhere.