Hide & Seek: Using Childhood Games for Writing Prompts and Metaphors

In All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten, Robert Fulghum writes about hiding in a pile of leaves in his front yard and not being found by the game’s seeker. He likens this hiding-too-well as a kid to a doctor who was dying of cancer but never told anybody because he didn’t … Continue reading
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Writing as a Walker in the City (Or Anywhere)

Writers write. That’s the definition. And sometimes, we-who-write feel cranky and rebellious toward our job. That can lead to not writing and then to becoming upset with ourselves for not writing, for not being writers. For the prompts I share this week, I’ve taken inspiration from Walt Whitman’s “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry”  and from the poet … Continue reading
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Reading Tarn Wilson’s The Slow Farm as a Writer Reads

For this video lesson, I have selected three passages from a memoir I love and admire, Tarn Wilson’s The Slow Farm.  I discuss them as a lesson on using details and sensory information to evoke the point-of-view of a memoir’s protagonist–the writer’s. Here Tarn is using her point-of-view as young a child. We learn at … Continue reading
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Writing Poetry for a Clearer, More Centered Self

Writing poetry, no matter what genre you usually work in, is truly an experience of re-creating a self. In writing poems from experience and from meditative and reflective moments, we are the makers of something that helps us come to know ourselves and have increased intimacy with ourselves. From this intimacy comes the creation of … Continue reading
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Continuing: A Short Study of Writing Memoir As an Accumulation of Short Pieces

It may seem hard to imagine how to write a life in short pieces rather than with a more traditional narrative arc, but it works. Here are excerpts from memoirs-made-of-pieces that I like very much: Excerpts from Abigail Thomas’ What Comes Next and How to Like It. Excerpt from Kim Stafford’s 100 Tricks Any Boy Can Do: … Continue reading
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A Three-Part Study Guide to Writing Short Memoir

Part One To get a feel for short memoir, you might enjoy reading from Writers’ Digest magazine’s column called “5-Minute Memoir.”  Here are links to a few of the columns: Writing from the Mat Hidden in Plain Sight The Beauty of Bones Here is a column I wrote for the October 2012 issue: Writing Grief … Continue reading
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Admiring and Learning from Flash Writing by Jim Heynen

I have been an eager reader of flash stories by Jim Heynen for years. I’ve read The Man Who Kept Cigars Under His Cap, One-Room School House: Stories About the Boys, The Boy’s House: New and Selected Stories as well as his newest collection Ordinary Sins: Stories. You can visit this web page to view … Continue reading
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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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