Friday, July 07, 2006

Writing from a Childhood Home

One of my favourite facets of About Last Night is Terry Teachout’s occasional bulletins from his childhood home in Smalltown, USA on his returns there to visit his mother.

In a recent such post, he contrasted his usual workspace in his Manhattan apartment with that from which he was writing that week in his mother’s house:

In Smalltown I sit at a rickety, ink-stained card table that’s as old as I am, set up next to the bed in which I slept as a teenager. When I glance up from my iBook, I see a homemade bookshelf (my father built it) full of tattered paperbacks, a complete set of Reader’s Digest Best-Loved Books for Young Readers, and a short stack of dusty 45s by such artists as Ray Anthony, Rosemary Clooney, Billy Daniels, Vic Damone, Stan Kenton, the McGuire Sisters, and Jo Stafford. A chromolithograph of Abraham Lincoln hangs on the wall behind me. To my left is a telephone with a dial. The only modern things in sight are the laptop computer on which I’m writing these words and the iPod on which I listen to music, both of which I brought with me.

I come from a small city in the middle of the Canadian prairies rather than a small town in the United States, but Teachout’s descriptions of returning “to Smalltown two or three times a year, each time returning to the same room in the same house in the same neighborhood, a block from my elementary school and three blocks from my high school” vividly evoke for me the same fond nostalgia that I often experience on my own trips home.

Teachout’s contrast of workspaces got me thinking about a distinction in our experiences though. I’ve realized in recent years that I can no longer write in my childhood bedroom.

The room that I stay in when I visit my parents is the same room in which I read and reread countless wonderful books throughout my childhood, adolescence, and teenage years. It’s the room in which I devoured Maud Hart Lovelace’s Betsy-Tacy books and L.M. Montgomery’s Emily books, and aspired to become a writer along with Betsy and Emily. It’s the room in which I scribbled hundreds of dreadful (though deeply-felt) poems, and made my first attempts at fiction. It’s the room in which I squirreled away my first rejection letters and later celebrated my first acceptance letter from a literary magazine.

You would think that returning to that room would return me to my writing roots, that that space would be suffused with creative energy. Yet when ensconced there on a trip home I find myself unable to write anything beyond the most mundane of journal entries. Trying to write a story as an adult in that room is the closest I’ve come to writer’s block.

I’ve begun to wonder if returning to that room has an infantilizing effect. Perhaps in the same way that some people revert to childish petulance in adulthood when they interact with siblings in the presence of their parents, I revert to adolescent writing in my teenage bedroom. The experience and craft that I’ve acquired in the intervening years, tools that I need to write the fictions that I write now, temporarily abandon me.

That said, those visits home feed my writing in another way. I don’t write while I’m there but afterwards, inspired by conversations with my parents and by simply having lived again on the site of vivid memories for a few days or weeks, I write furiously when I get back to my current home, half a continent away.


Pauline said...

When I go back to my parents' place, I wonder about all these books I used to love but grew tired of. Sometimes I rediscover them and it's a whole new experience, even if it's basically the same book. But now when I go back I go to the guest bedroom with my husband and I only go to my childhood's bedroom as a guest. It's strange because I see it quite differently now.

litlove said...

How interesting! The past when it's in material or spacial form, like a room, is very domineering, I think. I don't think I could write in my bedroom at my parent's house. In any case, I have to work a writing area in, as it were, trying it out and taking it slowly at first.