Writing Prompt: What’s Your Most Cherished Childhood Place?
My friend Alan as a young boy, standing on his uncle's shoulders in Brazil, ready to leap into his future, with many cousins in the background.
When I ask people to describe a cherished childhood place, their answers are often poignant and vivid. The homes of beloved grandparents and natural settings such as woods and creeks pop up as common themes.
All memories of childhood places can be turned into stories.
One response, from my friend Alan, instantly immersed me into another world. He described his most cherished childhood place as the “family sugar cane plantation in rural Brazil, near Usina Vale.” Asked to explain why, Alan wrote, “Slippery red clay, mud squishing between toes, sweet stink of rotting sugar cane and cow manure, eating goiaba [guava] and jabuticaba [Brazilian grapes] from trees.”
The plantation, east of Paraguay in south Brazil, still exists.
“People are surprised that English is my second language,” said Alan, who works as a professional writer in Daytona Beach, Florida. “It’s just the life I lived.”
How can writers make descriptive memories of childhood places blossom into stories? Let’s first review Alan’s memories, as an example of this writing prompt.
From Illinois to Brazil
Alan was born in Brazil. His father was a foreign exchange student in northern Illinois when he met and married a young woman from Wisconsin—Alan’s mother. She gave birth to a daughter, then moved to Brazil just before Alan was born, in the early 1980s. Another sister and brother soon followed.
The sugar cane plantation was “the family farm,” Alan explained. “The original plot of land was bought by our great-grandfather around the turn of the last century.”
The farm included a set of houses where Alan’s cousins stayed part-time. The extended Roman Catholic family was “enormous” and visited the farm regularly.
Because Alan’s father was the plant manager at Usina Vale, the distillery that converted sugarcane into ethanol for cars, his family was the only one living on the property full-time. In the 1970s, Alan noted, “Brazil set a goal to be energy independent. As a result, a lot of cars there run on 100 percent sugarcane-ethanol, and our farm primarily grew sugarcane and sold it to the distillery.”
After a decade or so, Alan’s family moved back to the United States. He was in second grade and spoke almost no English. They lived first in Alden, Illinois, then in Woodstock. Alan enrolled in Northern Illinois University and worked for the Norther Star, the school’s rigorously independent student-run newspaper.
His self-confessed tendency to be “a huge gearhead and iconoclast” eventually brought him to Florida. “While I worked as a technical writer after college, I was also really into the 24 Hours of Lemons racing series,” he said. “I built a race car with a friend, got really excited about racing in cars that most people consider total garbage. We fitted ours with a giant Richard Nixon mannequin on the back, with us jokingly dressed as volunteer canvassers for CREEP. So, when the opportunity arose to work at an independent car magazine, I jumped at it. Turned out, that magazine was in Holly Hill, Florida, adjacent to Daytona Beach.”
Where’s the Conflict?
Alan’s childhood memories are pretty darned cool, right? In fact, Alan is pretty darned cool. Yet, his story up to this point lacks conflict. It all sounds quite idyllic, and as writers learn over and over again, good stories require a protagonist who urgently wants something and will do just about anything to get it.
I mentioned this to Alan and asked if he could imagine himself as the protagonist in his own story. He said he wasn’t sure.
“Most of what I remember was childhood freedom,” he said. “Playing in mud, dragging my toy truck around—a Tonka, mailed from the United States. by my grandpa along with other American things, like a tube of Pringles. I am not one to tout myself as someone who charges for things in such a way as to be admired, so I hesitate to consider myself the protagonist of anything. But goddamn, I climbed trees and ate fruit and stained my clothes on that red dirt with abandon.”
Protagonists vs. Antagonists
Alan’s response is typical of anyone remembering their childhood. Initially when we think back, we see ourselves not as the protagonist of our own story, but as a passive observer. After all, children tend to go along with whatever flow their parents have established for them. If you think of your childhood self that way, consider next whether there was an antagonist in your story—someone or something that created obstacles or problems for you.
When I asked Alan to search his memories for an antagonist, he said, “Once we were living in town, I struggled to make friends with people who I actually liked. Most of the people I befriended were mean to me in one way or another … I didn’t have many options for friends.”
There was a certain boy who lived at the end of the street. Let’s call him “Vincent.” Alan can’t recall if Vincent hit him, or was just unwilling to share toys, or was otherwise generally mean. It was a similar story with “Gregory,” another boy that I have assigne a fictitious name because our childhood meanness should not haunt us forever. Gregory was somewhat nicer than Vincent, but he would sometimes give Alan the cold shoulder.
The Plot Thickens
Ah ha! Now our story is getting somewhere.
We have young Alan as the protagonist in his own coming-of-age story. The young writer struggled with low self-esteem and he wanted so badly to make friends with people who didn’t deserve his friendship. We also have antagonists in the form of other boys who were far less thoughtful and sensitive than Alan.
As a final step in leveraging this writing prompt, we must ask whether Alan’s conflict was ever resolved, and if so, how? “At some point in high school I had a falling out with the few friends I had, and after a really hard time, I decided something like, `F*#k everyone. I don’t need their approval.’ I think it was around then that became an iconoclast.”
In case you’re Googling the word now, an iconoclast is a person who attacks or challenges cherished beliefs or institutions.
That’s interesting because in many good coming-of-age stories, the hero eventually reaches a fork in the road where s/he must decide, figuratively and often literally, which way to go—as with twelve-year-old Gordie Lachance in Stephen King’s novella, The Body (later the movie Stand By Me). Alternatively, the hero might be rescued by
Sounds to me like Alan rescued himself, though.
Thanks for sharing your story, Alan. Write on.