Thursday, January 26, 2012

Wild Onions, Orange Popsicles, and Truth

Yesterday Joyce Hostetter and I brainstormed our upcoming workshop for the Write2Ignite conference. We have presented “Using Life Experiences to Inform Your Writing” at other venues, but we like to tweak it each time to make it fresh.

We introduce ourselves by each reading a passage that springboards from our own life experiences.  Previously, I have read from an article for adults in which I show my father’s story-reading influence upon me as a writer. Joyce challenged me use a childhood memory that has impacted my current work in progress, Half-Truths.

We always begin this workshop by providing sensory stimuli to help prompt memories.  Participants build upon these experiences in two different writing activities. Yesterday Joyce and I chewed over how to help writers get to the essence, or “truth” of those memories.

Joyce and I embracing the book sculptures on The Green
in Charlotte, NC

After our conversation, I e-mailed Joyce and asked to clarify what she meant about the discovering the truth of an experience. She replied,

“In the shed scene in BLUE, I refer to the smell of oil and dirt and how that reminds Ann Fay of her Daddy.  But for me, the smell of dirt and oil reminds me mostly of summer days when I would go to the garage and take an inner tube down from a pole on the wall and go to the pond to swim. 

“I could describe my own experience in the book – I could talk about hearing the screen door slam as I left the house, running to the garage to beat my siblings to the biggest inner tube, smelling the mix of dirt and oil on the old garage floor, and looping the inner tube over my arm with my towel as I walked to the pond.

“Instead I took a smell that has good memories and applied it to Ann Fay’s daddy and her longing for him. The trick is using details to give life to our stories without simply writing a fictionalized memoir— in other words— pulling nuggets from our lives to inform our writing but not to dictate a scene."

I read Joyce’s email and then went outside to do yard work.  As I raked and weeded I thought about Joyce’s challenge: to see if a nugget from my past could inform my work. I dug up wild onions, smelled them, remembered their odor, and wondered if one of main characters would ever sniff wild onions. I came inside and wrote this poem from Kate Dinsmore’s perspective.

Image courtesy of

Wild Onions

The smell is pungent and my eyes sting when I hold them to my nose.
My nose tingles. The earth is springy and brown.
Lillie and I wash our hands after weeding and we both smell like onions.
The same color of muddy water washes down the drain.
I end up with white hands; hers are only slightly darker than mine.
Yet she has to sit at the back of the bus.
She goes to a school where the books are used.
She has to worry every time she walks through Myers Park if someone is going to accuse her of being in the wrong place at the wrong time.
She is always looking over her shoulder.
Wondering, if she will ever measure up to some white standard of beauty. Actually, never feeling like she will measure up.
Now my eyes and nose tingle, not from onions, but I am sad for my friend.
And yes,
She is my friend.

This poured out of me and left me in tears—the poem and process both surprised and delighted me.

What about the orange popsicles? I think I’ll tuck that taste and memory into my pocket and save them for another poem.


Joy said...

What a beautiful poem!! Thank you for sharing it and your writing process. Some of the most beautiful writing is that which leaves both your ink pen AND your eyes dry when you've finished--that's an experience I'm not sure I could describe with words.

Clara Gillow Clark said...

I wish I could be at the conference to hear you and Joyce speak. Great photo of you two! Poignant poem.

Carol Baldwin said...

Thanks Joy & Clara. I agree Joy! Sometimes my best writing is when I am least self-conscious of what I am trying carefully to say. And thanks Clara, for your note about the poem. It really left me surprised and satisfied.

Edupreneur said...

What a beautiful addition to an already wonderful work-in-progress. Consider me inspired!

Carol Baldwin said...

Glad you were inspired!

Vijaya said...

Lovely bittersweet poem.

It's interesting how smells make me remember long-ago things in a vivid, wordless manner.

I'm looking forward to your team workshop.

Carol Baldwin said...

Thank you, Vijaya, for your sweet comments. I am looking forward to meeting you too. And yes, smells evoke strong memories!

Augusta Scattergood said...

This sent me scrambling for notes I took at a workshop at the recent Miami SCBWI conference. Can't find them so will have to resort to memory! One of the presenters gave us an exercise about using senses in our writing. After we wrote, she remarked that taste is the sense most often overlooked. I kind of smiled inside when she said that. Not sure that applies to us Southerners! We, or at least I, frequently find ways to slip food into scenes. But there are other ways to "taste" and I think that's even harder to write about. That's why I loved your image of wild onions. So much a part of my childhood! A smell that evokes taste, and many other things. And something I hadn't thought of in a while. Good post, Carol!

Carol Baldwin said...

Thanks, Augusta. This means a lot--coming from you!

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