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
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
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
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
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
[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
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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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?
- 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?
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
What is a prose poem? “It is a piece of writing in prose having obvious poetic qualities, including intensity, compactness, prominent rhythms, and imagery.” — Chrome Browser Link. Why write it? “Baudelaire used prose poems to rebel against the straitjacket of classical French versification. He dreamed of creating ‘a poetic prose, musical without rhyme or … Continue reading
Want to write an article for a local publication, an online site or a niche publication in a field of interest to you? Here are some prompts to get you going: Write a tourist type tour of your town for those who live there. Write an idiosyncratic tour of your town for tourists who don’t … Continue reading
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
“If I’d only known what was in this book forty years ago, how much more money would I have made and how fewer problems would I have encountered?” Karen wonders. Isn’t that true for all of us in our lives—if we knew what we know now we could have done better at what mattered to … Continue reading
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
Dialog moves a narrative along in fiction, personal essay, memoir and poetry, too. Playing with ways to experiment with dialog will help you build your dexterity with this aspect of the writing craft. And playing with the prompts might have you creating some new writing you’ll want to expand. Write a conversation between three people–one who … Continue reading
When we write fiction, we need to get inside our characters’ beings. When we write memoir, we need to learn more about our own character as well as the character of people who have influenced our experience. But sometimes we need a pathway to find fresh material. Here are 20 exercises for getting to know our characters and … Continue reading
Keeping a notebook of short descriptions, thoughts, overheard conversations, quotes and even complaints and worries will keep us in the writing mode, even when our days are filled with other activities and concerns. I have been reading a wise and inspiring book called The Journal Keeper, A Memoir, by Phyllis Theroux. The author put together journal entries … Continue reading
Last week, I wrote about doing a scene-writing exercise short story writer and teacher, Ron Carlson, invented. This week, I am posting 20 ideas I’ve put together for practice writing scenes that will help you develop dexterity in presenting your story, fiction or nonfiction, with the kinds of phrasing and details that absorb readers. Try … Continue reading
As writers, we are aware of the dictum “Show, don’t tell,” but sometimes what we think of as showing turns out to be only another way of telling and avoiding showing. On this subject, I often quote fiction writer Ron Carlson’s words in his book, Ron Carlson Writes a Story: Outer story, the physical world, is … Continue reading
In her book, Marry Your Muse, Jan Philips writes about a day at a mountain cabin when she and her partner were spending time writing. Jan’s cousins, ages 10 and 12, showed up at the door. When Jan told the girls that she and Annie were very busy writing, the girls said they understood, that … Continue reading
Years ago, a poet friend of mine, Jim Mitsui, ended a poem with an image of people “following their keys home.” That image has lingered with me as a lesson about what the writing life saves us from, which is the dullness of always expecting the expected, and what it requires of us, which is … Continue reading
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