Walking Backwards in My Mindby Kathy Coogan
“I’m walking backwards in my mind,” our five year old daughter said, describing a little mind game that we still use in our family thirty years later. She was sitting at the breakfast table, staring into space. Her bowl of milky Cheerios, her recent favorite, was getting soggier as she sat. “Earth to Carrie, eat your cereal. We’ve gotta go in five minutes, Toots,” I said.
“I can’t remember where I put my sticker-book. I’m walking backwards in my mind trying to find it,” she said. The sticker-book was the newest fad. It went to school for trading purposes during recess. You were nobody in kindergarten without your sticker-book.
She “found” it as she finished her last spoonful of cereal, seeing it her head, in the backseat of the car. If she could have snapped her fingers, she would have, as she ran to the garage to make sure her memory hadn’t fooled her. Tah-dah.
No need to actually walk from room to room in a frenzied search mission, working up a frustrated sweat, wasting time and shoe leather. Most times “walking backwards in your mind,” will zoom you in on the target.
Car keys lost? Focus, focus: I came in, walked to the kitchen. I had the gallon of milk in one hand, car keys dangling, the grocery bag in the other. I opened the fridge with the index finger of my left hand, put the milk away. Walked to the pantry, shifted a few cans and jars around to make room for the salsa and coffee…warmer, warmer…I put the keys on the shelf to move the peanut butter away. Eureka! I find the keys behind the Peter Pan never having taken a false step!
Writing requires me to walk backwards in my mind, too. I am in the middle of a story or an essay for a client. I am stuck. No problemo. I sit back and browse around in my brain, letting my mind’s eye figure out where to go next. I go into the vault of memories to pick and choose. It’s a jumble up there.
I pick up objects to feel their heft and texture or measure their authenticity: my father-in-law’s fedora; a perfect seashell, inhabitant still inside; a drop of blood in the kitchen sink.
I retrace routes and experiences mining them for fit into my prose: from hotel lobby to my sunny room; from hospital lobby to ICU; my first-choice prom date saying no; the bill that I had forgotten to pay--twice.
Memories trump imagination. I modify them, exaggerate them and use them.
My elderly thief wears a fedora. My abused wife weeps over a seashell still intact. My non-profit client is cautioned to deposit the check before counting the contribution, like the carpenter who measures twice and cuts once.
Life is my metaphor, observation is my benefactor, memory is my vault. Walking backwards in it is a mind game that works whether you are a child seeking lost toys or a writer seeking originality.
Can you be a better writer?
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