A Useful Review for Employing the Five Senses in Writing Scenes

In writing, we only feel included as readers when our senses are involved. As we read with our senses involved, we learn more about ourselves and others by encountering the way the others record surroundings through their senses. As writers, we have a fuller picture when we allow our characters and ourselves as speakers to … Continue reading
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Finding the Motto Writer Within

We are motto (and affirmation) happy in our culture. We circulate phrases from manufacturers and social service organizations from “Just do it” to “Just say no,” from “You deserve a break today” to “I brake for animals.” After I studied creative writing in graduate school and was publishing poetry, I was just starting to use … Continue reading
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Burying the Dutch Oven: A Writing Exercise for Discovery

A writing colleague of mine once shared in an essay that when she angrily broke up with a beloved college boyfriend under duress because her father didn’t like him, she took the Dutch oven they used for cooking and buried it in the backyard before she left. The topic of the essay was finding him … Continue reading
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Finding Starts in Personal Essay Writing: Part 3

Mining the Three Freewrites: Whether you have done these freewrites ( see Part 1 and Part 2)  in the course of one writing session or over several days, find out what the freewrites have to tell you about an essay you might write by combing through them and jotting down images and phrases that interest … Continue reading
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Finding Starts in Personal Essay Writing: Part 2

[The following article appeared first in “The Heart and Craft and of Life Writing.”] Last week’s article included a freewrite to get you going toward writing on a topic that surprises you or allows you to get into a piece of writing in a way that is new to you. If you haven’t done freewrite … Continue reading
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Acknowledging the Value of Your Writing, Part 4

Creating Self-Understanding Despite Fears of Revealing Your Own Shortcomings and True Experience Before we see what writers have said on the issue of fear about revealing oneself through writing, try this exercise: Select four or so pieces of your writing. Look for nouns that you used more than you knew you did. Circle these words … Continue reading
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Acknowledging the Value of Your Writing Part 3 of 4

Healing Through the Dark Emotions From journal writing to writing finished plays, memoir, poems and fiction, writers evoke and examine encounters with the dark emotions incited by misfortune, abuse, divorce, severe lack of confidence, fear of difficult and horrifying situations in our world, as well as the loss of a loved one or of a … Continue reading
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Acknowledging the Value of Your Writing: Exercises for Week One and Two of Four

I have been teaching a class called “Writing is a Friend with Extraordinary Benefits” for a couple of years now through Women on Writing. I have been extremely engaged in what my students write and thrilled by the evidence that by writing from certain models the writers have reaffirmed their belief in the value of writing. After … Continue reading
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Writing About Painful Topics

My friend, the essayist Brenda Miller, wrote the introduction to my memoir A New Theology: Turning to Poetry in a Time of Grief. “I understood then,” she wrote, “that grief can be a channel in which you swim alone, where you can also find your brethren as they flicker along beside you, their bodies gliding … Continue reading
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Help Writing Scenes That Engage the Reader (and the Writer)

In 2005, I posted an article with excerpts from Riding in Cars with Boys by Beverly Donofrio’s and A Soldier’s Daughter Never Cries by Kaylie Jones along with exercises based on their writing. I am reposting the following short excerpts along with the ideas I had aimed at helping you launch new writing of your … Continue reading
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Writing the Eulogy

As my mother’s 90th birthday approaches, my husband and I have sorted through photographs from nine decades of her life. He is making a photo essay book to be given to her this Sunday and shared with guests at the party we are making.

As we sorted, I reached into a manila envelope and to my surprise, it wasn’t a photo inside but a record, the size of a 45 rpm, with a note, “Bert and Arline, March 1945” handwritten on the label. I soon went to see a DJ at KPTZ FM, the station for which I produce my program “In Conversation: Discussions on Writing and the Writing Life.” The DJ kindly used the equipment the station has to play what turned out to be a 78 record.

Everyone there at the studio stood in the soundproof room waiting to hear what my parents, who were 18 at the time, said to one another in a recording booth they must have dropped into in NY six months before they eloped and probably just as my dad prepared to leave for Oklahoma having enlisted in the Navy. It’s a short recording. One of the most endearing moments for me is when my father says, “I love you so much” and then asks, “Do you love me?” My mother says, “Yes, I do.” My dad asks, “Why?” And she laughs, “God only knows.”

So, I am thinking of my dad a lot as we prepare for this weekend’s celebration. I have gone into my files to find the eulogy I wrote for his funeral services. I see that I employed anaphora, the craft form I wrote about last week. I am sharing the writing I read at my father’s funeral in the hopes that it may help you if are tasked with writing a eulogy or want to write one, even long after a person has died.

As you will see, repeating a specific phrase helped me keep writing and conjuring moments infused with meaning for me.

At My Father’s Funeral, 2001, The Words I Shared

When I think of my father, I think of the words he taught me: presentable as in his morning question those years he was climbing the corporate ladder, “Do I look presentable;” indispensable as in the mantra that kept him motivated toward excellence, “No man is indispensable;” and the one he taught us using the British pronunciation because the company he worked for had had research done there, “laboratory.”

When I think of my father, I think of the way he taught me to be conscientious, honest, forthright, and disciplined. Homework was to get done, goals were to be set and reached, and mistakes were to be noted and fixed.

I think of the gifts he most cherished giving my sister and me—copies of books like Treasure Island, a white football he tried to teach us to throw, a chemistry set we could only use with him as our proctor, money for college saved each week in the blue envelopes we brought to school.

I think of the things we took as gifts—riding his shoulders to play at great height in a swimming pool, his hand on the back of our two wheeler seats as we pedaled down the sidewalk learning to balance, his driving lessons and the degree of attention and seriousness he gave the task and his bravery sitting with us as we pressed the accelerator and learned to steer. He concentrated on helping us learn to make our way as well as helping our way be joyous. When I had my first job as an administrator and found the nonprofit I worked for was in the red, my father came to visit and sat for hours teaching me how to create, monitor, and control an organization’s budget. When my teenage son designed my husband and I a house, he donated the financing for skylights, an extra that would make all the difference to his grandson project. When I had a collection of poems that needed presales for the small press to make a print run, my father ordered about 50 copies and eventually gave them out like cigars when a baby is born.

When my dad’s health declined these past few years, I began writing poems incorporating my memories of his fathering. I would like to share one today because I think it best evokes his nature and what I will always treasure.

Some Things He May Not Know He Taught Me

                                                            For my father

I praise him for two varnished skulls from cats
he’d dissected in biology, the way he bolted those skulls to mahogany
and kept them on his shelves, a trophy for attending college against the odds.

I praise him for the diligence with which he wrote a jingle night after night
at our kitchen table trying to win prizes from the supermarket, the special care
he took with the 78 rpm Pinocchio album his jingle won him, how he kept it
on a high shelf so my sister and I would not touch it when he was not around.
I praise the way he cherished what he worked so hard for.

I praise him for the clay pot he planted with grass seed scooped from the ground
when gardeners sowed a lawn each spring between the buildings of our court.
I praise him for the joke he made, cutting the grass each Saturday
with a scissors, showing my sister and me that chores get done.

I praise him for the day when I was four and watched him shave
until the plumbing backed up. With an inch of sewer water
underfoot, he lifted me from the room waking my mother in a hurry,
telling her the problem, his feet already out the door to work.
She yelled how it wasn’t fair to leave her with the mess;
I praise him for teaching me nothing unexpected need be fair.

I praise him for the hand he slammed against the steering wheel
our first time through the Lincoln Tunnel when a car rear-ended us
and his sample cases of pharmaceuticals clanked, smashed and oozed.
I praise him for the way he did not easily accept what wasn’t in his control.
Quick most times to anger, he let us know his burden and his soul.

***

As a writer, repeating phrases helps me occupy and contain my abstraction-making mind so my image-making mind can deliver the details that bring my subject alive without me worrying about how to fit them into a narrative.

One of the beautiful things about a eulogy, in prose or in poetry, is the way that in honoring the dead with details and images, both writer and listener resurrect a life.

I do not know what memories my mom will find flooding in as we share my young father’s and young mother’s voices and the decades of photos with her and family members this Sunday. But I do know that whatever that reaction, it will usher in an occasion from which I will write. I know that the technique of anaphora will help me include more than I might otherwise be able to comfortably gather into one piece of writing.

Toward Beginning A Year of Writing Poetry (Or Improving Your Prose Through Poetry)

For January: Dreams and Repetitions In this month of the inauguration of a new president of our country, it seems particularly appropriate and important to study the orators of our great nation who called out for freedoms we enjoy. Reading the words of Dr. King, Thomas Jefferson and Barack Obama, we can experience the power … Continue reading
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What It Takes – An Exercise to Keep You Writing

This time of year, we are often flooded with memories of our childhoods, especially of winter holiday times. Some of the memories may be of difficulties and some may be of times filled with excitement and joy. Happy or sad, peaceful or filled with anxiety, these memories can lead to vivid writing. In drafting writing … Continue reading
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‘Tis the Season for Lists

[Note: I originally posted the following article in December, 2007. It’s holiday preparation time again and lists keep us sane. They can also keep us writing! Try the exercise I am suggesting based on writing lists poems. Try it more than once during this season of shopping lists, invitation lists and gift lists.] You might … Continue reading
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Openings That Make You Continue Writing

Often, we feel we can’t start writing because we are not inspired. Or we feel that we have become “flat” as writers when we look at what we have written. Here are 10 writing prompts inspired by the opening lines of novels, films and a short story. I believe that working from any of these prompts will allow you to blast off into writing that will surprise you. You might even find that some of the openings and prompt ideas encourage you to take a second look at the way you have opened the essays and stories you’ve already begun.

  1. I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith begins, “I write this sitting in the kitchen sink.” Start a piece of writing today with a unique perspective: I write this crouched below the cafeteria tables of my junior high school; I think this suspended mid-air before my parachute opens; I say these words riding a wooden horse on a carousal. Place yourself (or your character) somewhere and write what comes.
  2. The Go-Between by L.P. Hartley begins, “The past is a foreign country. They do things differently there.” What apt metaphor might you use to start a piece of writing or a chapter? Try one of these: Compare a time period to a geographical area or compare a friend, relative or co-worker of yours or your character to an institution like McDonald’s, a library, multiplex cinema or church.
  3. Nervous Conditions by Tsitsi Dangarembga begins, “I was not sorry when my brother died.” Saying the “unsayable” or the not likeable or the socially unacceptable can lead to good writing. Write about a time that you (or a character) were not sorry when you should have been or were sorry when others would not have been sorry.
  4. In Ray Bradbury’s Dandelion Wine, at dawn, 12-year-old Douglas Spaulding commands his town to wake up: “Everyone yawn. Everyone up.” He goes on to imagine he is directing the symphony of morning, “Grandpa, get your teeth from the water glass!” “Grandma and Great-grandma, fry hot cakes!” “Cough, get up, take pills, move around!” Think of a location you are familiar with and write directions for everyone or thing there: are you camping, getting ready for a church dinner, fishing at a lake, driving to work, leaving on a remembered family vacation?
  5. After Life by Rhian Ellis begins: “First I had to get his body into the boat.” Think of a step that must be done, one that seems a bit outrageous, before you (or your character) can do anything else: First, I had to open my wings and fly; first I had to retrieve the letter I’d already put in the mailbox slot; first, I had to call the head of security at the airport. Make it something that is unexpected or not easy to accomplish. Why must you do this? What circumstance has gotten you to this point?
  6. The Paperboy by Pete Dexter begins: “My brother Ward was once a famous man.” What were you (or your character) once: Once I was first chair violin, once I was the tallest in my class, once I had a sister, once I was the best hop scotch player on my street, once I climbed trees. Write some “once” statements and see which ones bring back memories and life changes worth writing about.
  7. A Primate’s Memoir by Robert Sapolsky begins: “I joined the baboon troop during my twenty-first year. I had never planned to become a savanna baboon when I grew up; instead I had always assumed I would become a mountain gorilla.” Whose point of view might you begin a story from? Your title might be “My Cat’s Memoir,” “Memoir of My Grandmother’s Silver Fork,” or “The Bath Towel’s Memoir,” for instance. Choose an age that the real story of the life begins — at 3 months, 21 years, a half a century. What happened then? The fork might say, “I wasn’t sure where we’d all come from or how long we’d lay useless, but I figured I was about 80 when she took us out of the wooden box and soaked us in warm water and Tide detergent, and I knew I’d be busy once again.” Find out where the “memoir” takes you.
  8. The film Lawrence of Arabia begins, “He was the most extraordinary man I ever knew.” Make a statement about someone (or have your character do it). Make it extremely negative or superlative. Now support it with a story that illustrates this characteristic.
  9. The film I Never Sang for My Father begins, “Death ends a life, but it does not end a relationship, which struggles on in the survivor’s mind toward some resolution which it may never find.” Think of someone who has left you because of death, divorce, or moving. Begin by asking a question, “What in me struggles toward resolution now that you have left?” Write about that.
  10. A recent short story by Dianne Belfrey in The New Yorker magazine, begins, “Every love story has to start somewhere, and I’m blaming this one on a boat. What kind of story do you want to tell? What tangible object or what place can you “blame” it one? Here is an example, “Every story of loss has to start somewhere. I blame this one on a maple tree in fall.” And other example, “Every story of riches has to start somewhere. I blame this one on an apple tree in October.” Once you have your image you have a place to begin and a story to run with.

***

I hope you have fun with these. I’d love to see some of your openings if you’d like to paste them into the comment box below this article.

Deepen Your Writing: 20 Prompts Using Point of View

Many of us writing memoir are used to writing from the first person (I) point of view. Others of us write fiction in the first person, often as an autobiographically-based main character. Some of us write in third person (he or she) when we want to tell an autobiographical story but feel too close to … Continue reading
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Focus on Emotions Using the Epistolary (Letter) Form

The late poet Richard Hugo was for many years head of the Creative Writing Program at the University of Missoula in Montana. In 1977, during a time of insecurity and writer’s block, he published a small volume of poems entitled 31 Letters and 13 Dreams, in which he addressed his poems to contemporary poets and to people of importance to him. He wrote what mattered to his heart and soul and broke out of his writer’s block. The letters are always to someone in particular and written from a particular town or city in which Hugo thinks of that person. Usually, he launches his poem in letter from what his senses experience where he is. Then he makes associations to information about his state of being or to his past that he feels emotionally inspired to tell the person he is writing to. The poems are filled with authenticity, appreciation, vulnerability, love and strong bonds.

The volume of poetry is still available. You can also read these two letter poems online (you have to scroll down a bit to find the poems):

Letter to Simic from Boulder

Letter to Kizer from Seattle

When I was teaching one a writers’ conference in Istanbul, I made an assignment to write a letter from Istanbul to someone you care about letting them know your feelings via the use of images from the city, what your feelings are. The outcome could look like a poem or prose or a prose poem. What mattered is that it had images of the city and associations filled with emotions that would affect the recipient, someone who you would like to allow to know your feelings of connection or of sadness or of guilt–the letter form is a great one to use for making an apology for something larger than yourself.

It was one of my favorite of Hugo’s letter poems, “Letter from Port Townsend to Wagoner,” that inspired me to do the exercise by writing to my daughter from Istanbul.

Here’s the poem I wrote while I was unable to sleep because of lingering jet lag:

Letter To My Daughter Emily from Istanbul on Mother’s Day
by Sheila Bender

I write in a circle of women, my feet on an antique kilim
covering a concrete floor in a refurbished building, thinking
of the Christian mosaics in the Hagia Sophia,  how on one wall
they are partly revealed beneath Islamic frescos painted to cover
them when the Byzantine Empire fell to the Ottomans.

Amidst our arrivals and our departures, between lire coins and tram
passes and the food we order with names new to our tongues,
I remember that in life all of us are both hidden and revealed,
both essence and clutter, at times hungry, at other times sated.

We visited the nearby Underground Cistern for what was once
New Rome; there two marble blocks with carvings of Medusa’s
head are the bases of pillars because in his time the Emperor Justinian
did not want pagan reminders; still the stone made good blocks
for construction and one Medusa’s head is installed sideways
under the column she holds up; the other one is upside down.

There is a story that this was intentional to break Medusa’s power.
I think the stonemasons were looking for the most stable
stone platform for the pillars to stand on.

We walked back to the entrance and saw the Weeping Pillar,
a marble column with a worry hole in one place. Visitors are
invited to put their thumb inside and rotate it to wipe the smooth
marble and, of course, make a wish. And I did.

I thought of a good luck place you and I visited, Kiyomizu Temple,
the ladles of three waters we splashed over ourselves when you
were in Japan at university and the same ladles years later
when we returned years with your young son.

Tonight when I cannot sleep among the city’s motorcycles
and calls to prayer, I will pretend Medusa is winking at me,
standing on her head, never tired even after centuries holding
up pillars, the snakes of her hair but yarn for spinning the wool
of a strong and double-knotted rug, like the one I bought today.
It comes from Kayseri, 10 hours by bus from this city.
A traveler like you, the rug holds a girl’s story of wishes and love.

Medusa had the power to turn those she loved into stone,
but she winks in my thoughts because she knows, Emily,
when it comes to my love for you, I have always been
revealed and always sated, your life so full of fruit.

****

You know that I am going to suggest you try your hand at this sort of epistolary writing. Before you start, here is a quick excerpt from the book Getting the Knack by co-authors William Stafford and Stephen Dunning on writing poems:

From their introduction:

What do you already know about letter poems? Plenty.  You know how they begin.  Like letters themselves.  Letter poems  can start with a greeting.  “Dear Somebody.” You know how the usually end–with some way of signing off “Yours  truly” or Sincerely” or “Hang by your thumbs.”

So in a sense, knowing about the letter poem’s beginning and end, all you need worry about is the middle. Right? Wrong.  Probably the main qualities of letter poems come from who the letter is addressed to and who signs it.  In ordinary letters written to real people, there’s usually a known relationship, the writer (you) are writing a friend, a relative, an insurance agent.  You and friend, relative, or insurance agent have a history, and that history shapes how the letter goes.  “Dear Cousin Malcolm,” it might begin, if it’s to a cousin you’ve never met.  “Malco-mio” if you’ve known him all your life.

To start they suggest:

Draft a letter to that name.  One page max.  It will begin:

Dear___________,

In your letter, tell_______ who you are and what’s on your mind.  Do you want advice?  To ask a question about his her its life or situation? Straighten her/him/it out on a few matters? Serious or silly? Distanced or intimate?  It’s up to you.

In this draft, when you talk about yourself, the real you is talking. Reveal some things, if you dare.  Get close to real feeling. Sign your real name at the bottom.

And a they offer a delightful sample outcome:

Dear Husband,
I write Personal on the envelope.
Someone else opens and reads
The letter I meant only for you.
First time in a month we take
Time for wine in a bar.  Your
Briefcase sits between us, you
Touch papers in your pockets,
Scrunch your eyes, look around,
At work, the operator won’t put
Me through to you.  You are in
Conference, in Cleveland, in-
Communicado.  You never call
Back. Dear distracted executive
Husband of mine, your doors are
Closed.  You’re hiding. Come out.

Your Very Worried Wife.
by Dorothy Schieber Miller and Stephen Dunning

****

Okay, now it’s your turn!

We Write to Feel and to Make Others Feel What is Genuine

When someone asks (or you ask yourself) why you write, I bet that many of the motivations you think to cite are on this list: • to understand your experience, • because you have a story in your heart, • because you can’t keep yourself from writing, • because you hope at least one other person on the … Continue reading
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What the Teacher Was Thinking

Whatever our role in life, however well we perform in it, there is always the not knowing if we are doing it right, if what we are trying to accomplish will be accomplished. Sometimes that situation offers us a prompt we can use for writing. As a writing teacher, I spend many of the minutes … Continue reading
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23 Prompts for Revising

Author Joyce Carol Oates says, “The pleasure is the rewriting.” Author John Irving says, “More than a half, maybe as much as two-thirds of my life as a writer is rewriting. I wouldn’t say I have a talent that’s special. It strikes me that I have an unusual kind of stamina.” I enjoy revising and … Continue reading
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