Christmas is still a few weeks away, but this beautiful prose poem has been on my mind this week:
"A Child's Christmas in Wales" by Dylan Thomas
One thing I love about it is the way he allows his memories to come back to him on their own terms. This is an especially useful model for memoir, but it works, too, for fictional characters, when you're trying to get them to tell their story.
Rather than laying everything out in chronological order, Thomas makes the act of remembering, of trying to figure out what to tell, part of the story:
I can never remember whether it snowed for six days and six nights when I was twelve, or whether it snowed for twelve days and twelve nights when I was six. . . . All the Christmases roll down towards the two-tongued sea, like a cold and headlong moon bundling down the sky that was our street; and they stop at the rim of the ice-edged, fish-freezing waves, and I plunge my hands in the snow and bring out whatever I can find. In goes my hand into that wool-white bell-tongued ball of holidays resting at the rim of the carol-singing sea, and out come Mrs. Prothero and the firemen.
At times he allows his personal version of the past to become completely unmoored from the factual:
Years and years ago, when I was a boy, when there were wolves in Wales, and birds the color of red-flannel petticoats whisked past the harp-shaped hills . . .
This personal vision resonates with the image, within the story, of the coloring book he received as a child:
a painting book in which I could make the grass, the trees, the sea and the animals any color I please, and still the dazzling sky-blue sheep are grazing in the red field under the rainbow-billed and pea-green birds.
By allowing himself to give us the harp-shaped hills, the sky-blue sheep, and all the rest, Thomas frees himself from having to tell exactly what happened and in what order, and gives us a vivid, personal rendering of his childhood holidays. Instead of plodding through year by half-remembered year, he follows his memories where they lead, and in this way paints a much richer picture.
If your character could paint and color the past any way they wanted to show how it looks to them--any way at all--fill the hills with wolves, put red flannel petticoats on the birds, make the sea sing carols--what would they show us? Set a timer for fifteen minutes and let your character speak.