I’ve loved writing for most of my life. I’ve loved spinning words into pictures. But it does take a lot of time, a lot of concentration, and quite a bit of editing and tweaking to come up with something that is “worth reading.” As a kid, I delved into poetry, and every now and then a lame attempt at a short story or a novel, but frankly, I didn’t have the life experience to write about the sorts of things that intrigued me.
“Write what you know.” Haven’t you heard that a million times? Then how did Tolkien invent an entire world of fantasy that has become the standard to this day?
He knew languages. He knew folklore. He used both to create that world.
I was an over-educated, frustrated housewife and mother for years, or as I often put it, “A six-figure prostitute with one client, who also works in the childcare industry, and a horrible maid.” Because cleaning has NEVER been my talent. Oh well. I’m done feeling self conscious about all of that.
What happened? I decided one day, after two deployments and my then-husband getting laid off from his job and taking a job overseas in Afghanistan that I would do something for myself. It had already been a selfish year – I had actually started eating well and exercising (gasp!) and NOT feeling guilty for going swimming in the middle of the day. And I decided on top of all that to take a(free!) Creative Writing workshop at the local public library.
That first night, I had some idea of what I wanted to write. I was going to write a fantasy novel that I’ve had in the back of my head for years, that may in fact have a touch of Dystopian Society to it. It was going to be just a little bit creepy, and somewhat romantic and adventurous, and it was going to be based (loosely) on a fairy tale I’ve always found intriguing. And that’s as much of a description as I’ll give until I’ve actually written the thing, because I don’t want to give away my ideas.
What happened instead…
The very first prompt.
Think of a time from your youth or childhood where you were filled with a powerful emotion. Think about your surroundings, how they contributed to the mood, and write about that event.
It was about fifteen minutes. I chose fear. The story itself will probably cycle into the sequel if I ever get off my ass and write the thing, but writing it brought back some things.
Like Emma, I started Florida State University in the fall of 1990. Yes, she has many of my experiences, though she has her own perspective and her own as well. Places really do exist within the time they occur, and then they go away like anything else.
I visited Florida State University about twelve years after I graduated, when I was driving through on the way from Austin, TX, to my parents house in Central Florida. The campus felt SO very different to me. Not just because I had grown up, but also because things had changed. The flow of traffic was rerouted. New building existed where old buildings had been torn down, or where there were simply open spaces before. It made me kind of sad, although I could see that change was inevitable.
When I wrote that night, I suddenly realized that I had another story I wanted to write. I realized that I wanted to bring that Tallahassee back to life, and capture the moment when I was there. I guess it helps that I’d read and fallen in love with Dodie Smith’s novel, I Capture the Castle, and I will admit that inspired me on some level as well.
Once I had the idea in mind, it flowed. I remembered so many weird little details I wanted to include… The “traditions” that were a part of he experience in that time, like soaping Westcott Fountain. Kids may still do that, but I think with the cameras running 24/7, it’s probably a bit trickier to get away with it.
After I’d written the novel, when I was considering publishing, I wanted to capture a cover photo. I took many photos on the Beach in Long Island, just in case, that seemed to fit the theme, but I knew what I really wanted – an old photograph I had taken at dusk of the breezeway of Broward Hall. I took that photo the summer after my freshman year, and the low lighting and my poor photography skills caused a blurring, ghost-like effect. I couldn’t find that original photo anywhere, so I knew I would have to take another, but it was difficult to find time to travel to Tallahassee.
I took many photographs in Central Florida that summer while visiting my parents. Because if I couldn’t take the photo I wanted, I could capture a tree that would have captivated Emma. I found many wonderful areas to photograph, but in the end, I made time to drive to Tallahassee and capture the photo that I ultimately used on the cover.
This time, the changes didn’t startle me as much, so I was okay with them. It was just a matter of trying to create a scene that would not be too dated, that could pass for 1990 or 1991. My handy little Panasonic allowed me to play with different settings, and I was able to achieve the look I wanted for the most part.
The last time I returned to Tallahassee was in March of 2013, before my life was once again turned upside down. My kids were visiting their father’s relatives for their spring break, and I took advantage of that time to drive to Tallahassee with a friend of mine. She and I both took many photos not only of the campus, but of other places around Tallahassee. I took her for a drive down Old Bainbridge Road, and down Old St. Augustine, two beautiful canopy roads that I spent many a night driving in my college days.
We did the grand tour, including the restaurant where I worked in my last two years, the studio apartment I lived in right before graduation, and a favorite park of mine.
She loved Tallahassee. I found enough there, especially in the park, to feel like perhaps the city had not changed all that much.
It’s funny how nature has a way of changing with every season, and constantly changing, while the things man builds we try to build “to last.” And yet, it is the preserved wild spaces, which are constantly changing, that remain the least altered when you return. Yes, the water levels were different at the park. There were new signs and different buildings. But the paths were the same. I still had that sense that if I were walking through that park alone on a quiet afternoon, there was a possibility that I might stumble upon a fairy mound and find a portal into another world.
The ghosts of who we once were continue, at times, to haunt the places we’ve been. It’s fun sometimes to visit your ghosts.