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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A Writer’s Role Models: Canadian Author Miriam Towes and Her 15-Year-Old Character Elfrieda

This week, I have made a video for Writing It Real’s Weekly Article. In it, I share a passage from Canadian author Miriam Toews’ novel All My Puny Sorrows in which a talented 15-year-old piano player exercises her genius against the unwelcome authoritarianism of the Mennonite elders, who “willy nilly” as the girl’s mother says, … 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.

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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.

Writing Our Own Stories Helps Others Write Theirs: Essay by and Interview with Joan Leof

Joan Leof’s collection of essays Matryoshka: Uncovering Your Many Selves Through Writing Personal Essays and Questions for Reflection is intended to share her personal experience essays in a way that encourages others to write from their experiences.

After reading her collection and asking Joan’s permission to reprint one of her essays for Writing It Real members, I emailed her questions I hoped she’d answer for writers of personal experience. Here are her words on writing from personal experience:

Sheila
Over what span of years did you write the essays in this collection?

Joan
Half of the essays are new, written in the last three years. Five were published in the 80s-early 90s. Four are spin offs from material in the memoir I wrote from 2007-2011 (Fatal If Swallowed).

Sheila
How did you use them in your own work with other writers before publication?

Joan
While I don’t share the actual essays with writers in my groups until each is originally published, I always refer to the creative process that guides me. That includes keeping a SEED LIST of ideas. This can be anything from one word, to one paragraph, a theme, issue, newspaper clipping – anything that sparks something in me as having potential. I emphasize having trust that the idea will sprout in its time and take on a life of its own. For instance, something that’s been on my SEED LIST for decades finally became an essay recently with an ending that I could never have imagined. I had to “live” the ending before I could actually complete the story. Keeping open to recycling options is also encouraged. A previous essay could be tweaked and resubmitted. Or it could be reprinted as is somewhere. A theme or description can be extracted for a new essay.  Continue reading

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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Writing the Dear Mom Letter with Deborah Berger

 Deborah Berger asked women to write letters about what they never told their mothers.  Ultimately, she edited a selection of the contributions, along with profiles of their authors, into Dear Mom, Women’s Letters of Love, Loss and Longing. In her introduction to the work, she writes, “We are always linked to our mothers: both to … Continue reading
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When Digital Isn’t Real: Fact Finding Offline for Serious Writers

When Marlene Samuels found a publisher for her deceased mother’s World War II memoir, The Seamstress: A Memoir of Survival, her editor at Penguin-Berkeley had two conditions. She would have to ensure the accuracy of all the book’s facts (the names of every town and city in Eastern Europe during the early 1900’s up to … Continue reading
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How We Write the Heroine’s Story: Interview with Author Jody Gentian Bower

Jody Gentian Bower’s new book, Jane Eyre’s Sisters: How Women Live and Write the Heroine’s Story, is sure to change some minds about the path of women’s literature. I am pleased to post the following interview with Jody. I know readers will find both her thinking and her commitment to the process of creating her … Continue reading
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A Lesson About the Value of Writing from Henrik Ibsen’s Play Peer Gynt

Flying home from Scandinavia in late August, a little uncomfortable in the cramped airline seat, I was remembering stretching my legs on a trip I’d made to Norway years before.
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For Writers, “Finders Keepers” Can Mean “Finders Re-arrangers”

As writers, our ears are tuned for measuring the quality of the words we hear around us. Sometimes, our ears catch speech we think is pure poetry or could be if read that way. We find that with a little rearranging these words express more humor, more awe, more despair, or more of the irony and quirkiness of … Continue reading
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An Ode to the Author of Blue Willow

I was reading a magazine article recently in which authors wrote about pivotal books they’ve read. What book would I name, I wondered. Immediately, I saw myself at my fourth grade desk in the 1950’s at Franklin Elementary School in Union Township, New Jersey. I am unwrapping a book I ordered from the Scholastic Book … Continue reading
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Interview with Memoirist Tarn Wilson, Part III: Writing About Others and The Journey to Publication

Last week we posted Part II of my interview with Tarn Wilson about her memoir The Slow Farm. We talked about different ways of bringing back memories and how to write from a child’s viewpoint as an adult. This week, she shares the way she approaches writing about family members consciously and compassionately way, provides … Continue reading
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Celebrating and Learning from Poets — Another Batch of Three

This week I am posting poems by three more poets whose work I have been following. Each has offered words about the creation of the particular poem included. And, as before, you’ll find writing ideas from me based on each of the poems. Let these poems live inside of you for a bit after reading … Continue reading
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The Strangest of Theatres: A Poet Writes Across Borders

Three accomplished writers have as editors acquired a collection of essays in The Strangest of Theatres: Poets Writing Across Borders in which poets explore the way their journeys to foreign lands helped them add to literature’s great conversation. Susan Rich, one editor of the three, whose newest poetry collection Cloud Pharmacy is just out from … Continue reading
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A Coming-of-Age Vignette, Sage Advice, and the Writing Exercise They Inspired

When you read the following excerpts from Rhonda Wiley-Jones’ memoir, At Home in the World: Travel Stories of Growing Up and Growing Away, you’ll likely remember incidents from your own youth when you learned important things about yourself, perceptions that allowed you to see yourself in new ways. I’ve included a writing exercise to use … Continue reading
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On Writing the Eulogy

As writers, we are frequently the ones asked to write eulogies for friends and family members. Even if we are not asked, we may feel moved to write eulogies to honor those we loved and then to share our writing with a literary audience. Reading author David Reich’s eulogy for his father and considering the … Continue reading
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Judith Kitchen on Reading as a Writer Reads Part 2

Applying her method of reading as a writer reads to Pam Houston’s Contents May Have Shifted, Judith Kitchen asks, “So is this memoir, masked as novel? Or novel, masked as memoir? That’s one of the first questions that a reader of this book asks. “What does it matter?” you might venture.   Here is our guest author’s explanation. Reading … Continue reading
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Judith Kitchen on Reading as a Writer Reads Part 1

For our community read this past March 2013, the librarians in Port Townsend, where I live, chose Pam Houston’s novel Contents May Have Shifted, a story, they felt to be about love and freedom in middle age, something dear to the hearts of many in this community. At the top of the month the library … Continue reading
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Excerpt from Unbridled: A Memoir

Barbara McNally’s memoir, Unbridled: A Memoir, is, among other delights, a moving and often often funny travel story. Her search to understand her beliefs and live an authentic life instead of keeping her personal desires (which often conflicted with her fundamentalist upbringing) hidden begins in Ireland. Early in her trip, she meets a Wiccan named … Continue reading
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Writing the Situations Life Throws Your Way – An Interview with Thelma Zirkelbach

Former romance writer Thelma Zirkelback has two books out now (and a blog) on the subject of widowhood, one an anthology she co-edited of writings by women who have coped with their new life situation (On Our Own: Widowhood for Smarties) and the other a memoir about her interfaith marriage and and the loss of … Continue reading
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