Tell It Slant: Author Brenda Miller on Writing Creative Nonfiction and a Generous Excerpt from the Book

Introduction to an Excerpt from Tell it Slant (Available from Powell’s and Amazon as well as your favorite bookseller). By Brenda Miller In 2001, when Suzanne Paola and I began talking about writing a textbook for creative nonfiction, no such book existed. We had been cobbling together our own instructional materials for years, and together … Continue reading

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Writing in Letter Form (Epistolary Writing) Keeps You Going

I am reposting an article form the 2012 archives with exercises for using the epistolary form to stay inspired and to keep writing. I had been a reader of letters to Ann Landers and other newspaper columnists to whom the public wrote well into my teens. Even after my own children were grown, I continued … Continue reading

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Tattle Phone, a Writing Exercise

A few months ago, I was listening to Ira Glass on NPR while doing an errand. He was talking with David Kestenbaum about a preschool experiment in which kids were encouraged to say their complaints about unfairness into an unconnected red telephone in the classroom rather than to the teacher, who was tired of the … Continue reading

Keeping a Travel Journal You Love, Part 2 from Tarn Wilson

NINE TRAVEL JOURNALING EXERCISES Exercise 1 – Ask For What You WantAs one of my first entries, I set goals or ask for what I want from a trip. The activities are slightly different: setting goals implies I have the power to make the trip successful by defining my vision and making conscious choices.  Asking … Continue reading

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Listening to How a Poem Sounds Helps You Write Both Poems and Prose — Meaning is in the Sounds!

[The following article in honor of National Poetry Month appeared in slightly different form in March of 2003.] John Keats created the term “negative capability,” the idea that a poem holds within it one thing as well as its opposite. For example, when we eulogize someone’s death, we also celebrate their life. When we ache … Continue reading

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Using Private Writing to Locate Your True Subjects

This week’s article is a second excerpt from Rebecca McClanahan’s instructional book Write Your Heart Out: Exploring & Expressing What Matters To You, published by Walking Stick Press. It originaly appeared in 2003. One of the problems with being a student who is “good with words” is that you may learn early on how to … Continue reading

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In a Season of Lists, Write a Litany to Help Yourself Keep Writing

It is holiday time and amidst the tornado-like whirl of shopping, decorating, traveling, baking, cooking, and gathering with family, friends, colleagues and community, of offering help in shelters and churches, it may seem hard to write. And even harder still to write to discover what is at the bottom of our hearts and minds. The … Continue reading

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I Can’t Get Enough of Flash Memoir!

Writing Flash Memoir is great exercise for writers. I’ve been experiencing this in my own writing and editing and in the classes I have been teaching online and in-person. Getting to the point and writing tight while still relying on details to move the reader into the story and move the story forward to its poignant, … Continue reading

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Taking Inspiration from Allen Ginsberg’s Poems to Have My Say

Tuesday, as I waited for election returns, I thought of Allen Ginsberg’s poem “Howl,” written in 1955, so full of despair at what he had seen around him. I wondered what I would howl when I found out whether or not Democrats had gained a majority in the House of Representatives and, therefore, become able … Continue reading

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A Gander at Propaganda

“The Institute for Propaganda Analysis: Protecting Democracy in Pre-World War II America,” an article authored by Zachary Reisch and kept in the Bryn Mawr Institutional Library, offers clarification about the exploration of propaganda in our country. “What is democracy?” Reisch asks and he goes on: This is the question that liberals in late 1930s America … Continue reading

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A Wonderful Genre: Models and Lessons to Help You Write Flash

For the past month, I have been teaching an online class in writing in the flash subgenre. Last Saturday, I taught an all-day in-person seminar on the genre. So, this week, I am sharing some of my lesson ideas and links to model flash pieces, which I hope will encourage you to try your hand … Continue reading

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Hiring the Journal Keeper (and/or the Writer Within)

  …the heart…and the learned skills of the conscious mind… make appointments with each other, and keep them, and something begins to happen. Mary OliverA Poetry Handbook Whether you are someone who sets out to write poems, essays, stories or articles or keeps journals, the thinking and analogy I make in this excerpt from my … Continue reading

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Double Issue: Writing Exercises to Inspire You to Write

Here is a collection of writing ideas to keep you going for days as our schedules start to fill with fall commitments and shorter daylight. Let the Seasons’ Personas Inspire You to Write It’s the change of seasons now. Some of us feel crisp, chilly air as September wanes. Others of us may find other … Continue reading

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The Change in the Trees, How Strong the Wind is Blowing

As I update an earlier book of mine, A Year in the Life: Journaling for Self-Discovery, I will be sharing some of my favorite writing exercises with you over the next few weeks. Here’s the first of several lessons I am enjoying revisiting: A Lesson From Morrie and Rilke Many of us have read Tuesdays … Continue reading

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On Labor Day: What Writers Might Celebrate About Their Vocation

The first Labor Day was celebrated by some on September 5, 1882, when Knights of Labor leader Peter J. McGuire requested that the first Monday in September be a day of rest for American workers. A parade in New York City’s Union Square honored the working people of America. Thousands took the day off to … Continue reading

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Patricia Hampl, My To-do List and Fiddler on the Roof

I am so enjoying reading Patricia Hampl’s The Art of the Wasted Day. Early in the book, page 18, she records one of her many to-do lists. She says first that she admires Montaigne, know as the father of the personal essay, for his ability to be rather than strive. He didn’t think of himself … Continue reading

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It’s Not that You Make Things Up — You Notice Things, Patricia Hampl in “Timelessness”

It’s summer, oh, those lazy days. When was the last time you had one of those lazy days? If you are lucky, there were one or more of them and not too long ago. But with the political turmoil in our country, the social networking scene, most of us working and/or volunteering, family needs, home … Continue reading

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To Follow Your Words, Not Your Keys, Home

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

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An Approach to Writing Flash Nonfiction

Flash prose, sometimes called flash literature, is creative writing between 500 and 1500 words. This term includes further subgenres prose poetry, short essays and vignettes. Like the longer essay, or something now called short memoir, the flash personal essay evokes experience and arrives at discovery through the writer’s telling. Because it is short, it maintains a firm focus … Continue reading

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For Writers, “Finders Keepers” Can Mean “Finders Re-arrangers”

[This article appeared in slightly different form in 2014 — ed.] 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 … Continue reading

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The Flash Sequence: A Form for Saying the Unsayable

The flash sequence uses poetic leaps of association for examining the impact of difficult-to-articulate circumstances. Sometimes it is accomplished in journal entries, other times with meditations about place, or people or objects. Sometimes it is composed of collections of scenes. Whatever the container of the sequence, the form is undoubtedly a psychological exploration, often of … Continue reading

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A Talk for All Writers

Listening to successful children?s book writer Patrick Jennings during an interview with him for ?In Conversation: Discussions on Writing and the Writing Life,? I realized again how much authors of books for young readers have to teach all of us who write. Listen to my recent interview with Patrick, in which he reads from his … Continue reading

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Writers’ Strategies, Questions, And a Writing Exercise

A few years ago, I had the pleasure of interviewing memoirist and novelist Pam Houston. At the time of the interview, her book, Contents May Have Shifted, was Port Townsend?s Community Read. I did the taping on behalf of our local library. In this podcast, Pam talks about her writing and, in particular, the writing … Continue reading

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Cider Mills and Burning Leaves: Writing Fall

For us in northern states, fall brings shorter daylight, leaves to rake and cider mills to visit where we sip fresh apple cider and eat sweet doughnuts. We fill a nip in the air. In warm climates, fall begins the season of visitors with full hotels, gift shops and restaurants. Around the country Thanksgiving dinners … Continue reading

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Self-Portrait, Self-Portrait on the Wall, A Writing Exercise

Years ago one of my writing students wrote this line in class, “Ms. Failure paints her self-portrait, then hangs it on a wall in your world without asking permission.” He was speaking, he told us, of a time when he was “not facing the realities of the world.” His imagined self-portrait both set him straight … Continue reading

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Writing of the Body: Metaphor Making is Food for the Soul

In his book Care of the Soul, Thomas Moore writes about a client he saw in counseling who was having problems with food and dreamt that her esophagus was made of plastic and wasn’t reaching her stomach. Moore says: The esophagus is an excellent image of one of the soul’s chief functions: to transfer material … Continue reading

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Game Stories: A Prompt that Works

Two weeks ago, I posted an article with writing ideas for getting started on new material and asked those who wanted to do so to send me accounts of the games they have played and enjoyed, especially in childhood. My thanks to Nancy Levinson, author of Moments of Dawn: A Poetic Memoir of Love & … Continue reading

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Stage and Screen Prompts to Help Your Writing Craft

Whether you have wanted to write a play or a screenplay or are involved in writing memoir, thinking like a playwright will help you tell a story well by writing in scenes, creating evolving characters (yourself and others in your memoir) and using plot that employs conflict and life obstacles. Here are screen writing/play writing … Continue reading

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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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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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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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“Grave Matters”: Mary Ann Payne’s Writing Exercise Result

I am pleased to share long-time Writing It Real member Mary Ann Payne?s writing in response to the writing exercise I shared last week. Grave Mattersby Mary Ann Payne It?s time to bury the piano. Chop it up in tiny pieces and put it in a deep hole in the backyard next to the cement … 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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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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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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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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‘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 … Continue reading

A Short Study in Prose Poetry – Questions and Answers

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

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20 Prompts for Article Writing

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

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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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Rants and Raves — A Great Writing Strategy from Karen Lorene

“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

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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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20 Dialog Building Prompts

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

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20 Character Building Exercises

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

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Keeping a Writer’s Journal? 21 Prompts to Help You

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

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Play with 20 Scene Building Prompts

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

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The Physicality of Writing Scenes and Characters

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

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Writing the Interruptions

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

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It Wraps Back on Itself: Writing the Roundel

This, my second week in Denmark visiting my daughter and her family, I continued with my idea of writing more poetry in form. I flipped through the book my younger grandson, who had used it in third grade, had given me, A Kick in the Head: An Everyday Guide to Poetic Forms, and stopped on … Continue reading

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Writing Prompts To Anchor Summer

Originally published in in the summer of 2005, this article is filled with writing exercises inspired by the summer holidays. I think they will come in handy again to help you keep on writing, even though summer is loaded with traditional holiday social demands and active outdoor recreation. Learning the history of holidays can provide writers with prompts that … Continue reading

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Writing Your Way in the Back Door: The Painting as Entry

Christine Hemp offers us her thinking about how we may find our prose and poetry’s true subjects followed by a writing exercise for practice and two sample poems. [This article and exercise were originally published in Now Write! Nonfiction: Memoir, Journalism and Creative Nonfiction Exercises from Today’s Best Writers and Teachers, from Jeremy P. Tarcher/Penguin, edited by Sherry … Continue reading

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Celebrate National Poetry Month by Writing Poems! Yes, Even If You Think You Can’t!

National Poetry Month started yesterday. This week’s article is an oldie but goodie, originally published in 2007 and updated for 2014. In Port Townsend, the daffodils have been up several weeks. As usual out here, it looks like we’ll get rain this next week and certainly lots during the month of April, but I remind … Continue reading

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Are You Worrying About What’s Happened to Your Creativity?

Our creativity is an eternal light. It burns even when we are not paying attention to it. It doesn’t need relighting so much as finding where it lights our path.

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New Year’s Thoughts and Advice From My Correspondence With My iPad Mini

December 31, 2013 Dear Mini, Today marks our six-month anniversary of being together!  Six months! And you, my love, remain ever fresh and surprising, ever so original! We haven’t parted for even a day since that July afternoon when I gave in to the gleam in your eye and brought you home. I want to … Continue reading

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Create the Mother Lode: Exercises for Short Writing That Leads to More Writing

[This excerpt appear in slightly different form in the anthology Women Writing On Family: Tips on Writing, Teaching and Publishing, edited by Carol Smallwood and Suzann Holland.] Even when life seems too busy to “really” write, you can work on gathering and storing images, details, and reflections about family life, personal experiences and memories. The brief … Continue reading

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Our Writing Minds Depend on This

Writing depends on our willingness to observe closely and our ability to allow ourselves to engage emotionally with what we are observing. So often, though, we don’t remember to take time to look around rather than look only at our screens because of the mad crush of email, texts, instant messages, facebook posts, tweets, and … 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 for Weddings

In writing a wedding speech, we reflect upon our lives, our hopes and dreams and the hard work of relationship.

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Look, Listen, Touch, Smell, Taste: 7 More Ideas for Your Writer’s Journal

There is a pleasure in the thought that the particular tone of my mind at this moment may be new in the universe; that the emotions of this hour may be peculiar and unexampled in the whole of eternity of moral being. — Ralph Waldo Emerson, April 17, 1827, Charleston, South Carolina How can you … Continue reading

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Keeping Journals Can Help Writers by Inviting Scrappiness

In an essay William Matthews wrote as a contribution to my anthology The Writer’s Journal: 40 Writers and Their JournaIs, later reprinted in Keeping a Journal You Love, the late poet suggested that a journal “en­courages scrappiness. Things needn’t be finished, just stored, the way one might ‘store’ a five-dollar bill in a trou­ser pocket in the closet … Continue reading

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Writing Important Life Occasions

Our lives present us with births, deaths, marriages, anniversaries, and other beginnings and endings. The following prompts excerpted from A Year in the Life: Journaling For Self-Discovery can help us focus our attention on our joy or grief and keep us from the stumbling block of thinking too hard instead of just writing for awhile. Birthdays … 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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TIL – A Strategy for Travel Writing

My daughter Emily took a trip with her husband, children, and parents-in-law to India, where her husband has many relatives. During the three-week trip, I was very happy to be able to follow her travels through photos and writing she shared on Facebook. Her Facebook posts took a form that made me think of William … Continue reading

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You Are My Heroes — A Letter to Writers

You may have taken time away from writing while preparing for the holidays, but now’s the time to jump back in to reach your writing goals. This week’s article from the Writing It Real archives first appeared in 2006. If offers support for taking the place of writing in your life seriously and a writing … Continue reading

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