Saturday, July 31, 2021

Mini Memoir Moment: The Power of Place in Your Writing

by Marcia Moston @MarciaMoston

How the Home of Your Past Influences Your Present Preferences

Think about a place of your childhood. What first comes to mind? Whether it’s the family kitchen, the grandparents’ woodshed, the baseball field, or the big tree in the backyard, our earliest memories are attached to a place. Places stick in our minds because they embody something more than the physical space they occupy. The places of our lives, especially those of our childhood, are saturated with emotional and psychological associations.

According to builder and home designer Chris Travis, the emotional and psychological attachments we associate with those places, even though we aren’t consciously aware of them, affect our responses to our present-day surroundings. Understanding the root of these attachments helps him design homes that take these buried associations into account.

For example one couple was deadlocked about having a basement; the husband wanted it, the wife was inexplicably against it. Through one of Travis’s Truehome exercises, they discovered the wife was claustrophobic and had negative childhood associations with closed spaces like deep closets and basements. This discovery helped the designer come up with something that satisfied the husband’s need for space and his wife’s aversion.

Memoirists know that examining the past helps to understand the present and possibly affect the future. So of course, being the inward-looking person I am, I started thinking about the homes of my past and how they may have influenced the many other homes of my life.

My husband and I have moved about eight times over the years of our marriage. Although we haven’t always had a choice about our dwellings—the two-room adobe house with outside sink and scorpions climbing down the walls in Guatemala, the four-room downstairs parsonage apartment with the slanting floor and upstairs tenant in Vermont—I realized every house, from the first cape on Long Island with the ugly green asphalt siding to our present white, light, bright one—had great yards.

The yard is the first thing I look at when considering a house. When I thought about the places of my childhood, I realized my memories were mostly about being outdoors. Despite my mother’s efforts, the house I grew up in usually looked like someone had opened the door and let a hurricane pass through. But we didn’t care because we were allowed to roam the meadows, rivers and lakes from dawn to dusk. (What was my mother thinking!) And that penchant for living outside while snug inside is always with me—as is the need for order.

I’ve used the following example a gazillion times—and yes, I remember that I have in case you think I'm getting forgetful—but it is so good it deserves to be repeated. C.S. Lewis writes about the place of influence in his childhood. His father moved the family to a large house. Lewis’s brother went away to school, leaving Lewis alone much of the time. In Surprised by Joy, Lewis describes the impact this house had on him:

The New House is almost a major character in my story. I am a product of long corridors, empty sunlit rooms, upstairs indoor silences, attics explored in solitude distant noises of gurgling cisterns and pipes, and the noise of wind under the tiles. Also, of endless books.

What about the places of your past? 

Here are a few prompts to help you explore this idea. 
You might be surprised what you come up with.

1. Model Lewis’s format and write about a place that had an impact on you as a child. I am a product of . . . 

2. Start a sentence with It was a place where . . .

3. What was home like for you? How has it influenced your idea of home now? What emotional or psychological impact does it have on your present preferences?



Marcia Moston loves to write, teach, and talk about the possibilities of an ordinary life in the hands of an extraordinary God. She has contributed to several magazines, anthologies, and newspapers, and teaches narrative nonfiction with the OLLI at Furman program. She’s the author of Call of a Coward—the God of Moses and the Middle-Class Housewife and Going South –with the God of Jacob’s and My Mistakes.


  1. Yes, the old farmhouse where I grew up held lots of pleasant memories. Seventeen shade trees surrounded our house, making fans and AC unnecessary. Leafy elm boughs brushed against the window screens of our upstairs bedroom. In spring and summer we could wake up to the sound of our dad's tractor in the field next to our house. Love those memories.

  2. Love this Marcia! I’m going to do this exercise and see where it leads me. But I want to know how the architect specifically remedied the wife’s fear of basements 😉

  3. What a great idea! I can now see why some of the places I have lived (we have moved a lot also) were not compatible with me. Thanks for sharing.

  4. Thanks for sharing this. The places in our memory hold tight to our senses. We taste, smell, and hear those places as quickly as we see them in our minds. Those places hold our experiences and shape who we become. Sweet memories. Thank you for the encouragement to utilize the power of place in writing memoir. I am new to writing and am working on a memoir about a terrible season of my life, and of course the happy ending.