Monday, January 2, 2012

Bring history to life with a map to the treasure of your past!

Congratulations!  You’ve survived another year and another holiday season. 
Yellow caution lights are flashing, though: January is dead ahead—a closet of a month stuffed with resolutions, procrastinated projects, dusty good intentions and a Christmas tree and strings of outdoor lights waiting to come down.
The closet door is groaning—it’s moving—it’s blasting open—watch out! 
Yep, January is that vague “someday” that seems so far away when we’re shoving jobs into it.   Then on about January 2, our justifications for not getting things done—the garden needs harvested, the grass must be mowed, the holidays are coming—are gone; the door unlocks, and we’re buried in a landslide of procrastinated work.
No more excuses.  It’s time to “get around to it.” 
Is personal or family history writing one of the brickbats in your January closet? You mighty try the following kick-start project, which could be a fantastic help in getting you rolling—or possibly, a clever dodge to avoid all those other dusty jobs for yet a little longer.
Instead of writing, try drawing.
Draw a map of your childhood neighborhood, or any location that played an important part in your life. You could also plumb the depths of memory to draw the house plans of homes where you lived.
This idea comes from Bill Roorbach, author of Writing Life Stories: How to Make Memories into Memoirs, Ideas into Essays, and Life into Literature.
Roorbach uses this exercise as the first in his memoir writing workshops.  What better way to plunge ourselves into memories than by re-creating the world where we lived?
As with most things, getting started is the hardest part.  Pick art materials you’re comfortable with—in my case, a spiral notebook and a #2 pencil with a good eraser. There may be a few techno-geeks who’d prefer to try this on a computer, and to them I say, “Whatever floats your boat.”  The key is to TRY.
Make a square, label it “our house” and you’ve begun.  Then draw the neighbors’ houses, your schoolhouse, church, and the streets, parks, intersections, waterways and stores that were near your childhood home.
It may help to indicate “N, S, E, W” on the top, bottom and sides of the map.  Or you may choose not to place north at the top—after all, it’s YOUR map.
I drew two maps—the back country “canyon” surrounded by dry farm land where our family lived during the summers, and Teton City, population 289, where we spent winters in order to be close to school. 
I’m no artist, and my squares and squiggles aren’t imaginative or even cartographically correct.  My maps are labeled profusely, because even I may not be able to remember that those uneven triangles represent the Teton Peaks.  But drawing triggered memories and emotions, and prepared me to identify with my past in a whole new way. 
For instance, Teton City is criss-crossed by canals, a fact I never internalized until I had to draw them.  No wonder my mother was terrified that one of her children or grandchildren would drown in a canal.  Not surprisingly, the first story I wrote after drawing the maps was about losing my eyeglasses in a canal.
Amazingly, drawing made me want to write—to explain why “The Grove” was important place.  Deep in its shady depths, an ancient cottonwood spread branches across the ground in a way that formed a cave. Generations of children hid there, I’m sure—but back then, I swore that I discovered it!
Go ahead—make a resolution to finish your history-writing project.  And then, start drawing!

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