Last weekend I attended the Charlotte Huck Literary Festival in Redlands, California. It’s a book festival specifically for teachers, librarians, and writers, with a very strong focus on poetry.
One of the faculty members there was George Ella Lyon, author of the following poem:
Where I’m From
I am from clothespins,
from Clorox and carbon-tetrachloride.
I am from the dirt under the back porch.
it tasted like beets.)
I am from the forsythia bush
the Dutch elm
whose long-gone limbs I remember
as if they were my own.
I’m from fudge and eyeglasses,
from Imogene and Alafair.
I’m from the know-it-alls
and the pass-it-ons,
from Perk up! and Pipe down!
I’m from He restoreth my soul
with a cottonball lamb
and ten verses I can say myself.
I’m from Artemus and Billie’s Branch,
fried corn and strong coffee.
From the finger my grandfather lost
to the auger,
the eye my father shut to keep his sight.
Under my bed was a dress box
spilling old pictures,
a sift of lost faces
to drift beneath my dreams.
I am from those moments–
snapped before I budded —
leaf-fall from the family tree.
Isn’t that beautiful? The author talked to us about writing our own “Where I’m From” poems, an exercise she does with kids as young as 6. She told the following story to help us hone our lines.
One day she was working with a boy who wrote the first line of his poem as, “I’m from baseball.” After Ms. Lyon asked him a few questions he changed it to, “I am from the sweat behind the catcher’s mask.” His moment of realization for what she wanted him to do came when he said, “Oh! You want me to put you there!”
That is exactly what this poem does. It doesn’t just tell you that Lyon comes from a religious background, one with respect for elders, and a childhood spent outside. She puts you there and lets you taste, see, smell, hear the things she did.
As I was going through a workshop on writing my own “Where I’m From” poem, I thought, “This would be a great way to get to know my characters better.”
Filling out a character questionnaire is one thing. It’s important to be able to list the special events and ideas that make up your characters backstory. But having to translate that into this kind of poem gives you a much better appreciation for what that backstory actually means and the tiny details you can write about to make them fully three dimensional.
This exercise for your characters can work two ways. Maybe you already know your character’s back story inside and out. Take those items on your list of traits and events and turn them into this poem.
For example, let’s use Katniss from Hunger Games, shall we?
I’m from the growl of empty bellies
And the black dust of coal
Dug from the belly of the earth.
I’m from forbidden mornings punctuated only by
The whisper of rabbits feet
And the whoosh of an arrow.
I’m from the snap of a bow
And the snap to attention
As a name is called
And a child is marched
To their final stand.
But maybe you are trying to develop a character more because you don’t know them well enough. In this case, you’re going to work backwards. Poetry is a wonderful twist on free-writing to get to know a character. As you write the poem, images may come to you, letting you in on flashes from your character’s past. You may have to piece together words of the poem to understand what your character is trying to tell you. You might be surprised what you learn.
I did this exercise for the mother in my MG novel. I already know that she’s an accomplished pianist and played recitals as a girl. She works in PR and married and had children when she was older. She’s responsible to a T, but a little stand-offish in her feelings sometimes. She’s insightful and compassionate, driven, and very overwhelmed with responsibilities. But I didn’t know much of her backstory until I wrote this poem, and now I can use it to develop her more.
I’m from the land of green stalks,
Brushing the sky for miles on end.
From practice makes perfect, curl your hands,
Don’t look at your fingers,
And scales every day.
From a row of A’s displayed on the refrigerator,
To a diploma hanging above my desk.
From that long stretch of highway leading me
Into the land where buildings
Brush the sky for miles on end.
I’m from the place where Rainy Days and Mondays
Always Get Me Down.
I’m from a phone call
From the sheriff. The one I know
On a first name basis.
A box of tissues used
On a single plane ride home.
I come from saying goodbye
Before I’m ready
When I can only say it
To a casket.
I come from the place where
“You can do anything if you work hard enough”
Meets, “family first”
And the terror that seizes me
Lying in bed
Feeling like both can’t be true all the time.
I’m from eyes caught on a subway,
A guitar pulled out at Central Park.
A promise for a smaller,
But richer life.
And another stretch of highway
Bringing us both
To each other.
Writing this poem made me nail down the love story between the mother and father, the secret heartache of the mother, her fears, her professional backstory, all of it. And for me, it was so much easier than a generic list of questions. I highly recommend it.
If you do this exercise, I’d love to see your poem in the comments!