Winter Count: Tuesday Tryouts

15 May

7:53 a.m. — Atlanta

What is your earliest memory? And other early memories? We Write Poems, this week, asks us to go back to the beginning, to recall the events that flash through our minds when we try to remember our earliest memories, not memories fed by photographs, or family stories, but true memories.

I want to continue in that vein. As most of us think in images, remember in images, you may want to carry out the initial part of the exercise, with images [or doodles] that you draw. They can be stick figures. You can, also, write a word, or phrase, or sentence, for each event. Or, you may do a combination: drawings and words. It doesn’t matter. These will act as a mnemonic device, a record for you to take your poem from.

Many Plains Indian tribes, in the United States, kept winter counts. Their calendars ran from the first snow of winter to the first snow of the next winter. In order to have a record of any given tribe’s history, the winter count keeper for a tribe, chose an image to represent each year. These were not necessarily the most important events, but an event that the tribal community counted as memorable, perhaps, the death of a beloved leader, the record of a great hunt, or a meteor shower. Point of interest: every winter count robe, during the period, recorded Halley’s Comet.

The keeper painted the image of the chosen event on the inside of a buffalo robe, on the cured skin. Although some are in columns, most winter counts were drawn in circles, or spirals. Most counts covered about one hundred years. I see some of you flinching. Yes, I do have wonderful vision. Yes, I would like you to come up with one event for each year of your life. People! Such language! You may go from January to December, rather than first snow to first snow :-).

A couple of strategies I learned from my efforts to do this for each of my forty years of marriage: Start scattershot. Jot down the first thing you think of, not worrying about the year, yet. Keep jotting, in some form, stopping every now and then to see if you can order the events chronologically, or put down specific years.

Set up a spreadsheet and starting with this year, 2012, work backwards. Work in decades at a time, but if you think of something outside the decade, for heaven’s sake record it.

Keep jotting. You will find your brain recalling more and more if you don’t worry about not remembering. If the memories slow, go back to the ones you have recorded and choosing the ones that seem most likely for expanding, start noting sensory, and other, details. Move back and forth between recording events and making notes.

By referring to the calendar, members of a tribe marked events in their own lives. The keepers used the robes as mnemonic devices to recount stories for their tribal communities. You are aiming for a winter count that will provide you with an endless supply of possibilities for poems [the memories you recall will help with the next few prompts, as well]. The poems do not have to be about you, but your memory might fuel a poem. Ideally, you wait until you have a complete winter count. A couple of us might keel over before that happens.

Best scenario: you come up with something for each year of your life. You will have less to work with, but that’s okay scenario: you come up with a dozen memories. Alternate scenario: you come up with enough for this prompt, and you continue with the exercise because it has value.

You can go a couple of ways with your poem. You can pick one event to write about. You can link a series of events. You can make the event the minor key against the major key of a world event. You can be the speaker if you wish. You do not have to be the speaker even if it is your memory. You are allowed to change the facts, if that’s what the poem needs.

If you want to start with the start and haven’t seen the prompt at We Write Poems, give them a visit. Don’t forget to post your poems and leave the link in the comments [if the poem is too personal, you are welcome to post it in the comments rather than your blog]; come back during the week to check for links and read the poems.

I will see you Thursday for whatever Serendipity wanders along; Friday for the roundup; and next Tuesday for a prompt and a little discussion on self.

Happy winter counting, all.


Posted by on 15/05/2012 in exercises, poetry, writing


Tags: , , , , , ,

41 responses to “Winter Count: Tuesday Tryouts

  1. Gerry Wilson

    15/05/2012 at 9:46 am

    Margo, I love this prompt! I also love the story within the prompt, about the winter calendars. Lovely. I’m a fiction writer, but what a valuable exercise for any writer. I used to do something similar with my high school creative writing students; I’d have them sketch the floor plan of the very first house they remembered, including the yard, and then delve for memories associated with that place.

    I’m going to try this one myself. Only problem is, I have a LOT of years to cover!

    This is my first visit to your blog (thanks, Lara Britt, for calling attention!). I’ll be back.

    • margo roby

      15/05/2012 at 10:02 am

      Welcome, Gerry. How lovely to have you here.

      I used to do the exact same exercise with my creative writing class [the houseplan]. I taught one semester poetry and the other, prose.

      I have a fair few years myself, so this has become a long term exercise for me, but the rewards as I go along are terrific and, as you know, work as well for fiction as anything.

      I look forward to seeing you again — margo

  2. Hannah Gosselin

    15/05/2012 at 9:53 am

    I like the idea of the Indian tribes gathering memories in a spiral presentation. This is a great post and prompt idea, Margo! Ha! You heard my “language,” from there! It’s a bit of an overwhelming idea but so very worthy of the time put in. I’ll see what I can do! 🙂

  3. vivinfrance

    15/05/2012 at 12:01 pm

    Wow, thanks, Margo: I’ll need at least a year to fulfil the entire prompt: 75 is a long time to cover! Funnily enough I’d already delved into the memory bank for the WWP prompt. I’ll have a go, but don’t promise to post any time soon.

    • margo roby

      15/05/2012 at 12:09 pm

      ViV, sooo glad you are excited. I gave thought to your seventy-five years. It is going to help tremendously that your brain has started the process. Don’t worry about when.

  4. wordsandthoughtspjs

    15/05/2012 at 1:25 pm

    Margo, this one is going to take me a long time. I have so many complex images in me noggin. 🙂 I best get started right away, eh?.


    • margo roby

      15/05/2012 at 2:22 pm

      Start jotting, Pamela! from noggin to paper 🙂

  5. The Happy Amateur

    15/05/2012 at 2:08 pm

    Love the idea! Regardless of prompts based on memories I’ve been remembering things from my childhood (including very early childhood) lately. Without any warning vivid memories would just pop up…aging you think? 😦 I actually find it fascinating, amazing what human brain does. I don’t think I can restore every single year, but I’ll try to do a bunch!

    • margo roby

      15/05/2012 at 2:24 pm

      Sasha, Aging? Not necessarily. I turn 60 this year, but am not having any more early memories than usual, so something else is working there, Sasha. Whatever it is, take advantage and get the stories down.
      I love watching what the brain does. Endlessly fascinating.

      • The Happy Amateur

        15/05/2012 at 2:35 pm

        I guess I was just thinking about my grandmother who would remember things from her childhood so well, seemed like more and more each day. She used to tell me that’s what happens with time. Anyway, I was joking about aging, I don’t believe in aging 🙂 But I definitely have more early memories now than I used to, I’m curious about that.

        • margo roby

          15/05/2012 at 2:39 pm

          That’s different, Sasha. Also, remembering my grandmother. When she chose to wander in the past, then yes. I wonder what it is that takes us back to those memories and obscures the recent ones. I don’t believe in aging. My body disagrees! 🙂

  6. Irene

    15/05/2012 at 6:12 pm

    Holy moly, Margo. You outdid yourself. Seriously good. I’ll have to reference this. Alternative scenario sounds good.

  7. Sharp Little Pencil

    15/05/2012 at 11:09 pm

    Margo, to answer your question, this “notify me of follow-up comments via email” is one of the standard auto-check boxes, and yes, it’s on you blog… and yes, it is automatically checked off. I am a paying customer (domain name plus media upgrade), and believe me, I’m not getting any better service than you… P.E.A.C.E. (someday, when they get a clue) Amy

  8. b_y

    15/05/2012 at 11:54 pm

    I’m trying to get out of my head, not the other way around. sigh.

    • margo roby

      16/05/2012 at 7:55 am

      mmmmm… I’m thinking, I’m thinking, Barbara. So, skip this [that’s the best I can do early morning]. It’s not as if you will be unable to do future prompts. You’ll just approach them from a different point. Truly, look outwards. I can’t have you sighing.

    • b_y

      17/05/2012 at 8:40 am

      I’m just being contrary. Eventually I will come upon something I haven’t already written into the ground. Here is my process skin

      • margo roby

        17/05/2012 at 8:46 am

        Barbara, I know and you may be contrary all over the place, so long as you continue writing and visiting. Hmm. You have given me an idea for a prompt. Thank you, ma’am.

        • b_y

          17/05/2012 at 9:21 am


          • margo roby

            17/05/2012 at 9:24 am

            No, no. I think you’ll like it… I do. Yes, I am laughing. Our conversations seem to affect me that way.

  9. Misky

    16/05/2012 at 6:46 am

    Alternative view. I plan to work of this method more while I’m offline, but for now, it’s packing luggage and last minute stuff before I leave on Friday.

    • margo roby

      16/05/2012 at 7:31 am

      That’s a great idea, Misky. You can use the off-line time to open those memory cells. Two more days, counting today!

  10. Hannah Gosselin

    16/05/2012 at 7:22 am

    Here is a kinda rough “that’s okay alternative,” poem. It will need work and it is not fitting the space and breaking up my lines so that is driving me batty, too because the number of lines is symbolic. Oh, well let it go aching heart.

    I hope you like it, please feel free to critique on any/many levels if you like! 🙂

    • margo roby

      16/05/2012 at 7:32 am

      You are allowed to come back to it… really!

      • Hannah Gosselin

        16/05/2012 at 7:34 am

        I know only if I didn’t do something with it now it would be too far pushed to the back…and it’s an important prompt I think. 🙂

        • margo roby

          16/05/2012 at 7:41 am

          I think you have an important poem happening. Keep working it.

  11. b_y

    17/05/2012 at 12:42 pm

  12. Mary

    21/05/2012 at 8:03 pm

    Margo, thinking of your early memory prompt. this is what I thought of:…something I haven’t written about before.


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