Write or Paint to Free Yourself from the Ghosts of Your Past and to Celebrate the Good

I often say that my intuition is an integral part of my creative process, and I believe that memory is the well-spring of the intuition. For that reason, I am convinced that memory is every artist’s greatest resource. For writers, the memory is certainly essential, but I believe that all creators would benefit from examining their pasts.

When I say that, however, I am not talking about inner childhood work. That is a process for another arena. No doubt, all of us have ghosts in our pasts–ghosts that have encrusted us and that need to be exorcised, but our memories are filled with other things, too. Don’t allow the fact that you have some bad memories scare you away from looking at your own personal history. In other words, “Don’t throw out the baby with the bathwater.”

When I was a child in the Bootheel of Missouri, I was surrounded for miles by cotton fields, cotton gins, and the dark, rich soil that the Mississippi River had deposited there in earlier years. I often say that I grew up in the middle of a cotton field, and that is not far from the truth. My house was on a gravel road, and about four houses down from me, the cotton began in one direction. There was a row of houses behind me, and the cotton fields started in another direction, beyond that. There was a cotton gin at the edge of that field and during the fall, cotton lint filled the air.

Cotton lint is wispy and white. During the autumns of my childhood, it floated in the air and often looked like a very early snow. Like gossamer threads, cotton lint wove webs in the trees, in the tall and woody weeds, through the drying grass, on the street lights, buildings, and billboards, and all across the landscape of my rural, cotton-growing community.

When I was a child, a Bootheel kid’s summer ended in July, when school classes resumed.  About 6 weeks later, school was dismissed again for “cotton vacation.” That was the time when most children would go out to the farms and help pick cotton. I picked for a sharecropper who would gather us town kids at dawn and carry us in the back of his pickup truck to the fields to work.

When we arrived at the farm, the plants and the cotton would still be wet from the dew. As we walked to the other end of the field, our clothes would get soaked. During the early morning, it was quiet and calm, and an occasional mourning dove would sonorously call through the air.

Soon, the sun’s rays would begin to streak across the rows of cotton and would reflect from the moist plants that would sparkle like gems as it hit. Not much later in the day, the sunlight would dry the plants, and the temperature would rise. The glimmering of the early morning light would become a shrill heat flare. The day would begin to grind., but for me, cotton plants are memories of home: http://jackikellum.com/jacki-kellum-cotton-plants-are-memories-of-home/


Cotton Ready for the Harvest – Jacki Kellum Graphite Pencil Drawing|
Illustration for Former Pro Baseball Player Mark Littell’s Book

Country Boy Conveniently Wild

I talk about my illustrating Mark’s book here http://jackikellum.com/sending-a-letter-back-home-im-glad-that-i-grew-up-in-the-rural-south/

Cotton Ready for the Harvest – Jacki Kellum Colored Pencil Drawing|

Watching cotton grow is a beautiful experience. During the early spring, the farmers plow and plant the fields. In the beginning, the cotton plants look like most any field of green plants. Then, the plants are filled with big, bulbous blooms that eventually turn into hard cotton bolls. Even during early fall, green bolls are still scattered throughout the cotton plants, and they grow amidst the white cotton. Cotton  fights were not an uncommon game among the kids who picked cotton. Cotton bolls are about the size of golf balls, and anyone who has been assaulted with cotton bolls knows that they are as hard as golf balls, too.

To make matters worse, cotton plants are covered with vicious caterpillars that sting.

As cotton bolls mature, they begin to open, and after the boll is completely open, it dries and the tips of the segments become shards of hard, splintery wood. A day of picking cotton meant at least 10 cotton boll pricks and their subsequent splinters, which were followed by hot, painful swelling. Picking cotton was dreadful, but in some odd way, I wouldn’t trade anything for the experiences that I had out on the farms and in the fields, picking cotton. Those days are a fundamental part of the person that I became.


Cotton Harvest – Jacki Kellum Graphite Pencil
Original: $150 – Prints Are Also Available

Cotton Picking Blues – Jacki Kellum Colored Pencil
Sold to Jerry Caulder – Prints Are Still Available

The thoughts of picking cotton as a child flood me with a host of memories–of sore muscles, an aching back, hands poked and splintered, etc., but those are not the kinds of painful memories that people normally avoid remembering. I also have dreadful memories from my past–the kind of thoughts that make me want to jump into bed, pull my covers high above my ears, and hide. In fact, I did that for many years. Those were my years of silences, but the silences were not healing. The time before I began recalling my past was probably the darkest and saddest period of my life. I agree with William Faulkner:

“The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” – William Faulkner

In other words, regardless of how hard we try to eradicate our memories and to silence them, we never actually do. We may have camouflaged and hidden our past, but it is still there. I have learned that the healthy thing is to pull our memories out of the shadows and to create from them. I greatly admire what William Zinsser said about writing memoir in his book Inventing the Truth.

All of the essays included in Zinsser’s collection of essays are excellent, but it is in the Introduction that I read several points that are significant for memoir writers.
  • Memoir writers must distill the events of their lives and select what is best for their memoir.
  • Memoir writers must get personal and they must examine more than the superficial stuff of their lives.
  • Memoir writers need to examine the artifacts of their lives, as well as their memories.
  • Memoir writing can be painful, but the pain that is required to examine one’s past is worthwhile.

I have learned that I’ll never wrestle all of my bad memories to death. And here is the news flash: I don’t want to do that anymore. All of my memories are part of who I am.
I have learned that when I try to kill one part of myself, I simply allow a section of my being to slip into a simmering pot of sadness or of anger that is always lurking somewhere just below the surface of who I am.  Again, as Faulkner said, “The past is not even past.” Accept that reality. The past will never be totally past, and every person’s best alternative is to learn how to live with one’s past–to bring it out into the open and to simply learn to LIVE with it.
For people who are just beginning to write about their pasts and who are tripping over the memories that are still painful for them, I have a suggestion. When examining your past, step back a bit and simply be a fly on your own wall. Try not to get bogged down in the drama of what happened and what did not happen. I am not suggesting that you become numb about your past, but until your memories are less painful for you, simply step back and try to look at your life objectively. Pretend that you are your own psychotherapist and step away from your own couch. Objectively witness your own life. Take notes. And then write.
Even if you are not a writer and you are a painter or a musician or a dancer, I recommend that you also write. Writing is a way to organize your thoughts and to place them in some sort of hierarchy. Writing is a way to air your dirty linens, and regardless of what you have been told in the past, your dirty linens need the air.

Here Are A Few Tips that Might Help You Write about Your Past:

Writer’s Block

Most of us are plagued by writer’s block to one extent or another. Most of us have been bullied by our Self-Editors, and most of us are a little bit leery of writing because of our Self-Editors.

Writing with Pretty but Meaningless Words

Others of us may have formed some bad writing habits. We may have begun to cloak our passages with pretty, but meaningless words.

Writing What You Believe that People Want or Expect You to Write

We may have a tendency to write what we believe that other people want to read.

Writing that is Safe

One of the worst mistakes that a writer can make is that of failing to take a stand.

Writing that is Superficial

Many of us are slightly afraid to peer into some of our darker corners, and we may have developed a tendency to write about abstractions and about things that aren’t terribly personal. In that regard, examining your memory will help you open another level of subject matter and will pull back some obstacles that might be constructed because of bad memories.

To begin, you will simply write, and if you allow it do so, the memories that you recollect through your writing will become the seeds of your painting and your other art, too.