How to Write a Poem About a Childhood Memory
Poetry is sometimes seen as the easiest form of writing simply because it’s shorter and has multiple formats, including free verse. For these very reasons, poetry can present its writers with unexpected challenges—while it is a free form, it requires precise word choice. It can be hard to know where to begin. According to Stephen Dunning and William Stafford, authors of “Getting the Knack,” many poems start with "images from the senses" and come from various places, including memories. Using memory mapping as a writing approach, anyone can pen a poem about a childhood memory.
Imagine the outside of the house you lived in when you were a child. Try to remember as many details as possible—how many windows there were, the type of material it was made of, whether or not it had a garden. Imagine yourself standing outside of the house, the same age you were when you lived there. If you lived there for years, choose a time you remember well. In your mind, enter the house and walk around it. What do you see? Go to the room you slept in.
Use a piece of paper to draw a map of your childhood bedroom. Draw the map as though you are seeing the room from the ceiling. Don’t worry about drawing well, just include as many details as you can remember. You may want to label the objects in the room.
Write a list of other things you can remember from your room on the other side of your map. Continue to imagine yourself in your room. Think about the view from your window. Do you have any pets? Any secret hiding places? What is your favorite thing in the room? Is there something in the room that scares you? Do you have any collections?
Listen while in the room. What do you hear? Does anyone enter the room to talk with you? Are there any siblings or playmates? What are you doing? Write these imaginative wanderings on another list. Use more paper if necessary.
Write a list of 10 items related to your room. This list can include objects, incidents or simple memories. With each item in the list, write some further details—in the present tense.
Choose one item off the list written in step 5. Try writing a short paragraph from your point of view as a child—in the present tense—about that item. Try free-writing (don’t worry about punctuation and allow free association between words) as a way to let the words flow onto the page.
Reread the paragraphs you have written and try to notice any threads or underlying themes. If anything is readily apparent, use it as a starting point for the poem.
Choose part of your free-write that you’re most drawn to and write a stanza. Write in the present tense and work the language into poetry by editing it down. Remove unnecessary words and make sure the words you choose are as exact as possible to the meaning you’re after. Continue on to a second stanza, bringing some kind of shift to the poem. With a third and final stanza, pull the poem together. This may mean shifting the point of view or even the voice of the poem.
Give the poem some time—at least a day. Reread it and write another draft, paying attention to the poem’s shape (line length, punctuation, capitalization). If the lines have a natural rhythm, allow it to guide their length.
Make as many revisions as you feel are necessary. If the poem loses some of its spirit in its reworking, look back to earlier drafts and try to add back in what was lost.
Items you will need
- Poetry Magic: Writing Poetry—Approaches
- “Getting the Knack—20 Poetry Writing Exercises”; Stephen Dunning and William Stafford; 1992