Poor Ms. Pac-Man! She has spent a lifetime fleeing ghosts. By embracing yours, you can free up a wealth of material for new work. Everyone has some image or moment or experience lingering from their pasts. Yours might be tied to people or houses or stories. You might even have a book that has attached deeply in your memory. The key to unlocking these “nuggets” is to override the self-preservation instinct and push into uncomfortable territory.
Let me give a personal example. Recently, I accompanied my mother on a drive through an older part of town. When we had lived in that area ourselves, we used to pass a certain two-story that would always launch my mother into a well-worn story about the two, small boys who had once lived there. One had accidentally (fatally) shot the other, and was forever haunted by the memory. I was too young to remember much of the detail of the tragedy for myself, but this ritual retelling ingrained the warning just as certainly as our endless fire drills. Incidentally, we were the most emergency-prepared children on the planet. [More on that later.]
It had been many years since we passed by this house, but my mother immediately picked up with the story, and I was reminded of yet another cautionary tale that was always prompted by a certain Mississippi back road. Here she would recount the story of a close friend who had lost his arm while dangling it from a car window. She would talk about the phantom pain he would complain of years and years later, and how that one stupid decision had hung over his life.
As a child, I could repeat both of these stories by heart, but it was not until a high school friend lost his older brother to huffing, that I understood about phantom pain and true hauntings.
I watched helplessly as this friend struggled not just with the loss of his brother, but with his parents’ strange reaction. Even long after we had gone off to college, they carried on as if the dead brother were still alive– keeping him constantly before themselves with his favorite activities, even birthday celebrations, and especially ensuring that nothing was touched in his room or his soccer shoes removed from the foyer.
The honoring of a dead brother over a live one was deeply traumatic even for those at more of a distance. I dug into this residual pain and the images from my mother’s warnings/stories in a poem called “Apparitions” that is currently under consideration at a prominent magazine. It’s probably some of my best work, precisely because I made myself dig out all of those old ghosts.
See where this type of mining might take you!