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Changed Perceptions Equals Character Growth

Flickr Creative Commons: jechstra

I left home at sixteen and spent the next two decades hemming and hawing when asked where I was from. Upon hearing I’d lived in nine different places before I was three, most people assumed my entire childhood was equally nomadic, a perception I rarely corrected.

In truth I had roots, reluctant ones, thrust deep into the unforgiving soil of the western mountains of Maine. I knew every ski trail on Sugarloaf, every snowmobile trail in Kingfield, and every swimming hole in the Carrabassett River. I encountered moose and bear and lived to tell about it. I lost a notch out of my ear to frostbite. I knew the sweet agony of plunging into Rangeley Lake a month after ice cleared and the exhilaration of galloping my horse across abandoned farm fields.

My childhood brimmed with freedom and imagination, but being “from away” meant that much of it was spent alone, communing with tree friends instead of human ones. Seven years of isolation at a formative time of life hardened me against a home that could never be Home. Maine became my soul’s purgatory, a place I endured until my sentence ended and the cage door creaked open enough for me to fly away.

Nearly thirty years later, my children teenagers, it saddened me that they had no concept of how I grew up. Maine was a place on a map, interchangeable with Nebraska, Kentucky, or any other place to which they hadn’t been. They had never picked wild blueberries, ate lobster, dipped their feet in a frigid mountain stream, or seen a moose.

“We have to go,” I told my husband. “They’ll never truly know me if we don’t.”

Little has changed in the world I left behind. Sugarloaf has more condos. A few shops in Kingfield went out of business, replaced by new ones. The school I attended from grades 3-8 has added a couple rooms and PE classes now include snowshoeing. The high school has a newish sign but, thanks to an accommodating secretary, my family toured a building completely frozen in time.

“All it took to get in is to say you went here,” my older daughter said, “and she’s not even following us around. People are so nice here.”

My old high school hasn’t changed.

I’d noticed this, too, but years of believing otherwise conditioned me to assume it was due to the importance of tourism to the area or that the internet had softened insular tendencies. Tourists never ventured into Mt. Abram High School, though. No one would claim to have attended there if they hadn’t. That I brought my family all the way from Texas and made a point to stop in proved I was trustworthy.

The towns hadn’t changed. The people hadn’t changed. My perception of myself and my place in that world had. I’ll never live there again, but a part of me will always be a Mainer. I can now say that with a smile.

What does this have to do with writing? Quite a bit, actually.

Stories about characters whom, due to usual circumstances, are forced to go back to a place that left them conflicted, perhaps one to which they had sworn never to return, make for interesting reading. Many of us have “that place” in our own pasts, a town we claim to hate but from which we can never fully free ourselves.  It often makes an appearance in our work, thinly disguised as a fictional town, and offers us the chance to rewrite our lives with happier outcomes. Sometimes this process is therapeutic and brings peace. Sometimes it offers the chance to get revenge on those who wronged us. Other times it is simply literary vomit which must be expelled before we can write something else. (I have two such novels on my hard drive – one literary vomit and one therapeutic.)

A frequent problem with these novels is that characters – which often represent ourselves – tend not to change. Circumstances change. Secondary characters change. History is revised in a way that satisfies the author without moving the reader. Such pitfalls may well be avoided if the writer recognizes themselves in the protagonist, admits to mistakes they may have made, and is willing, at least on paper, to allow their alter ego to question their own perceptions.

Over to you – do you have a “that place” in your past? Have your perceptions of it ever been tested or changed? Would you (or have you) written about it?

About Kim Bullock [1]

Kim (she/her) has an M.A. in English from Iowa State University. She writes mainly historical fiction, though has also contributed non-fiction articles to historical and Arts and Crafts publications in both the United States and Canada. She has just finished The Unfinished Work of M.A. [2], a novel based on the rather colorful life of her great-grandfather, landscape painter Carl Ahrens.