Why Writers Need Field Trips: Guest post by Ann Hedreen

I thought I was going to take a quick stroll down the beach. Instead, I walked straight to the water’s edge, sat down, took off my shoes, and waded into Puget Sound. My toes dug happily into the dark, kelpy sand. My calves were electrically, perfectly cold. After a few minutes, I backed up and sat down where the tide could still lap my toes. I lifted my face to the sun and the breeze, both newly freed from the summer wildfire smoke that had blanketed Seattle for days.

I felt like I’d come home, after a long time away.

None of this involved thinking. All of it simply happened, as if some irresistible magnetic force was pulling me. As if I knew with my body, not my brain, that at this particular suburban Seattle beach, Richmond Beach, the thing to do was to get yourself right into the water the minute you got there.  

I never go to Richmond Beach. I live in southeast Seattle, and it is northwest of the city limits. But just over the hill from Richmond Beach was the home where I lived from zero to five. That much I do know, though all I remember of those first years are slivers and glimmers of our life in the little ranch house on NW 183rd Street; a jumble of memories that include only the briefest flashes of this shore.

But here I am. And here my feet are, wiggling in the cold water. And here now is this feeling washing over me, of utter contentment; a feeling that the shape of this beach and this sky and this driftwood and these train tracks all feel—right. Mine. Home.

I’m a memoir writer, and I teach memoir writing at Seattle Central College. I often tell my students to take themselves on field trips; to go back, if they can, to where they grew up. To be anthropologists, journalists, and study their own lives. I acknowledge that it’s easy for me, because the places where I grew up are not very far away.

The problem, of course, is that those places have changed: like me, they’ve grown older. Or they’ve disappeared. Or, if it’s a house, someone else now owns it and they’ve remodeled or painted or replaced the rhododendrons with drought-tolerant grasses.

This summer, I was invited to read at the Richmond Beach Library. The minute I put it on my calendar, I began to plan my post-reading, memory-lane field trip, first to the beach and then to 183rd Street. I had no specific writerly questions to research; I just wanted to see how it felt to be where I was in the very first years of my life, the years before reading and writing; the years in which every memory was sensory. Personal. Not complicated.

The author with her mother.

The author with her mother.

We lived on a street of then-new ranch homes, just a few miles inland from the sweeping public shoreline. At the end of our block, there was a tangled green patch which we called “the woods;” I knew from previous drive-bys that it was long ago covered with more houses. I remember riding my tricycle into the woods with a neighbor boy named Bruce, my very first friend my own age, and watching, astonished, when he unzipped his pants and peed. I remember he and I got into trouble once when we tried to walk by ourselves to the nearby Tradewell Supermarket.

The beach was way too far for us to even think of walking to by ourselves. And there were those train tracks. My older brother and sister knew all kinds of scary stories, told by kids even older than them, about crossing those train tracks.

But when we drove to the beach, and walked from the parking lot right over the train tracks on the overpass, me holding tight to my mother’s hand, and then kapow! —that huge, sky-filled world opened in front of me—I didn’t have words for it then, and I still don’t. I just knew I wanted more of it. To this day, I want more of it.

More huge sky, more water, more beach. More wildness.

After I left the beach, I drove over to our old home. My route zigged and zagged around the ravines that run through the neighborhood. And then there I was, on our block, staring at a one-story, light blue rambler (it was red when we lived there) that I wouldn’t have recognized if I didn’t know the address.

There were two cars in the driveway, so I didn’t feel like I could linger and stare. But I took in the shape of the house. I knew which window had been my bedroom window in the room I shared with my sisters. I walked from room to room in my mind.

And then I drove away, back to the neighborhood I now call home, through a grueling Seattle traffic jam that no one could have imagined when I was five.  

I don’t know whether or when my Richmond Beach field trip will find its way into my writing, but I know this: for one fleeting afternoon, I remembered a bit of what it felt like to be two, or three, or four years old. I felt that sensory ecstasy, unfettered by thinking, thinking, thinking.

Maybe someday that feeling will find its way into my writing. Maybe I just need to let it wash over me for a while, like the tide washed my tired toes on an August afternoon.

Ann Hedreen’s memoir, Her Beautiful Brain, won a 2016 Next Generation Indie book award and her blog, The Restless Nest, won an honorable mention from the National Society of Newspaper Columnists. Ann earned her M.F.A. in creative writing at Goddard College. She is currently working on a second memoir, The Observant Doubter.

Ann Hedreen’s memoir, Her Beautiful Brain, won a 2016 Next Generation Indie book award and her blog, The Restless Nestwon an honorable mention from the National Society of Newspaper Columnists. Ann earned her M.F.A. in creative writing at Goddard College. She is currently working on a second memoir, The Observant Doubter.