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BACK AGAIN!

23 Nov

My last post was six months ago.  I’ve missed all of you.  DSC01687

My excuses?  Being back in Corvallis where we can hang out with dear friends and family; several birthday parties including my own; two Saturdays of highly successful fiction writing workshops (See the underexposed photo of Linda Elin Hamner and me, both of us excited about sharing with a roomful of writers).  Add in several delightful Monday afternoon memoir workshops — a new teaching setting for me — each writer with an important  story to tell.

My last session of chemo was in mid-July, and so, now with new energy, I’m walking, swimming, and getting many things done for the first time since last December.  What joy I took in pruning the neglected roses, washing some musty windows, doing research on how to self-publish the fourth Katie book, Second-Chance Summer. By the way, my first step was to read the manuscript through — the first time in a year.  I was overjoyed to find it’s still a good book!

Some self-publishing companies mark up their printing costs to cut into author royalties.  Some have unfriendly contracts.  CreateSpace offers a direct line to Kindle and Amazon and uses its own printer; the others use Lightning Source as a printer.  BookBaby seems to be user-friendly, mostly because fellow writer Margaret Anderson says a real person will answer the phone when you call.  I’ve almost decided, however, to go with Wasteland Press because of its friendly contract and ratings, and because it has a policy of a good number of “free” paperbacks to the author, which recoups some of the cost.

The cover artist, Tuesday Mourning,  has sent the new cover artwork, and it is beautiful.  When Second-Chance Summer is available in paperback and e-book, you’ll see fireworks in this part of town.

DSC01705The newest member of the family

Salty, a rescue dog, came to us in late October after a long search.  She’s too big to be on Jerry’s lap (notice her long legs dangling off), but try telling her that!  Seven months old, and growing.  Yes, we call her “Salty Dog” after the bluegrass tune (and the drink).

Some good books

DSC01690The Woman Warrior: Memoirs of a Girlhood Among Ghosts by Maxine Hong Kingston.  (One of the “Top Ten Literary Memoirs” on a website I found.)  I’m a third of the way through and am captivated by her ability to tell stories.  Her message, which isn’t immediately apparent is a powerful argument against the denigration of girls in Chinese culture, and for recognizing the worth of writers.

I also re-read The Grapes of Wrath along with Working Days, which is the journal John Steinbeck kept while writing the novel.  He wrote the entire book during the summer of 1938 after doing what must have been a marathon of mental plotting.  His goal was to write 2000 words a day.  I loved it that he lost confidence in the middle of the writing and had to force himself to continue.  Sound familiar?

A Powerful Prompt for Memoir Writers

The writers in my summer memoir workshop could not stop writing once they got going on this.  Furthermore, the resulting drafts were good ones:  filled with emotion — anger, understanding, compassion.  This three-part prompt will also work for you.  Try it!

1.  Write for ten minutes about the mysteries that existed when you were young.  Begin with “When I was young, I didn’t know . . . “

When I was young, I didn’t know why my dad scolded my mother for loading up the kitchen cupboards with canned goods.  “One of these days, they’ll fall down,” he said.  I also didn’t know why Mother insisted that I dress up more than all the other kids.  Hat and gloves?  Sheesh!  Or why I could invite some children in to play, and not others.  The more I think about this, the more questions come up.

2.  Write for ten minutes about what you DID know about those cupboards or the dressing up or whatever.

3.  Finally, write as long as you can, beginning with the word “MAYBE.”

Maybe my mother remembered the depression and thought we might run out of food.  Maybe Dad thought she was hoarding, and did she think he was going to lose his job? Maybe he was embarrassed by her need to hoard . . .

If you can write in response to this prompt, I would love to hear how it went.

Happy Thanksgiving!  And to all of you who are participating in the “Write a Novel in a Month,” I send the best of luck.  You’re almost done!

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Amazing Dialogue Tags and Life

24 Jan
cactus antlers

cactus antlers

Written Jan. 17, one week ago:  Our freezing snap is over at last.  Temps have risen back to where we like them.  My daughter Rebecca snapped this goofy pic of us on one of the Catalina trails.  (She’s the one with the hair.)

Three weeks ago, when I couldn’t sleep, I worked on an essay about foods that have lived in my mind over all these years: dog biscuits, fancy Jello salads, the first cherry pie I made, the Christmas chili con carne, one particular green pepper.

The parts I added to the essay that sleepless night were about my cancer.  My Tucson writer’s group liked the new section, suggested I put a bit of it at the beginning and make the rest the new ending.  My Corvallis group also liked the new writing and suggested I reduce the middle by a thousand words.  (A good idea, darn it.)

How could I write an essay about what I put into my body over 70 years and leave out carboplatin and taxol?

Tomorrow (January 18) I go again to the U of A Cancer Center, a building surrounded by gardens planted with prickly pears, barrel cactus, cholla, and palo verde trees, plus benches where you sit in the sun and build up courage to go inside.

After meeting with my gynecological oncologist, I’ll proceed to the infusion center upstairs, get settled in a comfy recliner and get hooked up for saline, more steroids, anti-nausea drugs, an hour or so of carbo, and then antihistamines followed a few hours of taxol.  As you can see, half the infusions are to protect me from the toxic chemo.  Jerry and I will talk and play cribbage.  I’ll knit, read, sleep, think.  We’ll talk with people who have much worse cancers than I.  They help us keep things in perspective.

Important note from today.  On the 18th, we discovered that the chemo is really working for me.  My numbers once again decreased by more than half.  Good news.

I’d rather be chatting here about writing, so let’s get to it.

The Power of Dialogue

In memoir or fiction, once you get your people talking, your story will come to life.  When readers sit in on actual discussions, arguments, or repartee, they are transported out of their own worlds into the world you have created.

Writing good dialogue is not easy.  (Is ANY part of good writing easy?)

In my workshops, we cover three areas:

1) The technical rules of how to place quotation marks, periods and commas.

2) How to sculpt the spoken words – making them sound natural, making them “say” more than is on the surface.   Elmore Leonard is my guru for this.

3) The craft of writing dialogue tags – those words that tell us who is doing the talking.

Let’s save everything else for another day.  For now, let’s look only at tags.

What’s The Point of Tags? 

They identify who is speaking.  Well yes, we already knew that.  But there’s more.
They characterize the speaker through gestures, posture, actions, tone of voice, and thoughts.
They add tension.  Mood.
They move the plot forward.
They give information.

When Must We Use a Tag?

Whenever the reader might get confused about who is speaking.  In a story for adults, we can write many dialogue exchanges without using tags.  In a story for children who read more slowly and with more effort, we need to give more cues.  Simple tags let us know when Cassandra is speaking, and when it is her twin sister Cleo.

Does it Always Have to be “He Said”?

“Said” gets the job done.  Believe me, the reader will hardly notice it.  On the other hand, if we get inventive and use synonyms for “said” such as “exhorted,” “exclaimed,” “enunciated,” “articulated,” “cajoled,” the reader immediately starts noticing the fancy synonyms more than WHAT is being said.  Stick to simple tags of “said,” “replied,” “answered,” “asked,” or an occasional “whispered” or “called.”  They work just fine.

It’s a temptation to write lines of dialogue with few tags.  But if we do, we often end up with the “white room” syndrome of voices nattering on in a place that has no weather, no sense of what year it is, no furniture or props, and worst of all, the characters wear NO CLOTHES!

Get Creative; Have Fun! Use Descriptive Tags

Descriptive tags identify the speaker,  and add a gesture or action.

Examples:

“You have crossed the line,” Jack said, leaping off his horse and drawing  his antique sword.  [If we’d stopped after the word “said” we wouldn’t know about the horse or the sword.]

“Let’s play,” Noah said as he tugged on my sleeve, pulling me toward the broken train set. [Same for the train – a broken one, poor kid.]

“I will never forget your kindness,” Celia said as she tucked the tattered lace handkerchief into her cleavage.

“Thanks for nothing,” Dana said, brandishing a bunch of celery and forcing  her cart in front of mine in the Trader Joe’s checkout line.

We need to avoid stupid action that doesn’t characterize.  (I do this all the time and have to fix it later.)  My character nods, smiles, stands, sits (gestures any hack writer could come up with).  My stories start out with a cast of bobble heads!  Later, I turn those nods into something more interesting.  Nodding, smiling, etc. do little work for us.  They are a waste of paper.  Besides that, they indicate agreement — always boring.

From my examples, we see props and gestures and clothing show something about the character.  Take a look at the descriptive tags and see what you can deduce about age, agility, poverty, attitude, culture, and setting.  All this is a good start, but as we continue to layer, we’ll also try to incorporate clues about mood, tension, and plot direction.

Each tag should be worth the space it’s taking on the page.

Go Further!

Gestural tags are complete sentences — descriptive tags without the “said.”  You will recognize them whenever you see a complete sentence – one that identifies the speaker just as all good tags should do.  These give the reader a break from those descriptive tags that tend to have the same rhythm of using the word “said” and the comma.

Examples of gestural tags:

“My baby’s starving.  Help me, for God’s sake.”  The beggar’s trembling hands thrust out the dirty bowl.

“Believe me, Madam, I will never forget your kindness.”  She wiped her eyes with a lace handkerchief that had seen better days.

“You dumb jerk.  You crossed the line.”  Nathan brandished his antique sword and leaned close.

Placement of Tags

Clever things you can do with tags go on and on.  Choose the kind of tag you want to use (simple, descriptive, gestural) and then play around with where in the speech to place it.

Really?  Really!  This makes a huge difference!

Let’s play with the gestural tags above, bearing in mind that you can do this placement thing with all three kinds of tags.

“My baby’s starving.  Help me, for God’s sake.”  The beggar’s hands trembled as he held out his bowl. [Tag placed last]

The beggar’s hands trembled as he held out his bowl.   “My baby’s starving.  Help me, for God’s sake.”  [Tag placed first.  Does one sound better than the other? Maybe.]

“My baby’s starving.”  The beggar’s hands trembled as he held out his bowl.  “Help me, for God’s sake.”  [Tag placed in the middle.  Did something happen to the emphasis of his speech?  Definitely, better.]

Try this again, placing the tag after “Help me”  and before “For God’s sake.”

Is this trial and error worth doing?  Yes, it is.  Separating speech by tags tends to add strength or emphasis to certain lines especially to the one at the end.  Take a look at your own writing.  Circle each tag.  Can you make the tags more interesting, more “telling, ” can you  make them do more work?  Can you change their placement to add emphasis to certain words?

Writing Exercises For You

TO DO:  In your writing, find simple tags and rewrite them into descriptive tags or gestural tags.  Try giving your characters a task to perform as they speak.

TO DO:  Break up speeches that seem too long by placing significant gestures and actions – ones that do work – into the middle of them.

TO DO:  Comb through your writing to find “nodding and smiling” actions that are lazy.  Replace them with powerful tags.

TO DO:  Add layers of significant, specific details in your tags.  They help you show the reader, by allowing him or her to participate in your story.  The more your reader can fill in the significance of the grimy lace handkerchief, the broken-down toy train, the hostile shopper, the more alive your writing has become

Writing Prompt

Loosely taken from Bernays & Painter’s “What If?”

Write a scene of two people having a tense discussion – one worth eavesdropping on — one with five or six exchanges.  Perhaps one person is disclosing a secret, betraying a confidence, trying to smooth something over, or lying.  Important:  Give at least one of the speakers a task, chopping onions, cutting the other person’s hair, trying on swim suits, or whatever you think of.

Use all three kinds of tags if you can or use no tag at all, wherever it’s best.

Maybe Mark’s fingers can tighten around that knife; maybe the chopping will grow in intensity as the conversation escalates; maybe tears will fall that have nothing to do with the onions.

Let us see Maria’s scissors clip the air near her daughter’s ear as she makes a point.  Let us see her stop to kiss the blonde ringlet she’s just removed.

Let us see Irene tug at the bottom of the swim suit or fling one that’s too small over the dressing room door.  Who’s she talking with?  Are they friends, or enemies?  The undercurrents of their dialogue will make this clear.

If your exercise is no more than 300 words, I’d like to see it.  Want to send something to me?

Write About the Holidays

26 Nov

Jerry and me with the Saguaros

What do Tucsonans do on their holidays?  Thanksgiving Day, Jerry and I climbed the trails in Catalina State Park along with hundreds of other people.  They weren’t there for the silence or roadrunners or coyotes or javelinas.  Holidays in Tucson are the grand excuse for the whole family to get out hiking — wishing Happy Thanksgiving to everyone they encounter on the trail.

Last year, we first discovered this tradition on New Year’s Day in the Tucson Mountains.  These trails are not gentle pathways; the grandparents, the moms and dads with a baby in the sling, and all the little ones climb up amazingly rugged terrain.  Once they reach the viewpoints they hand cameras to anyone who will point and shoot their happy group.

Thursday, after we returned from Catalina State Park, we put the turkey into the oven and read our books out on the deck.  Clear skies; temps in the low 80s.  See the photo below.  Lucky us!

Here’s a Writing Prompt

Holiday traditions are often memorable.  Janet Burroway in her book, Writing Fiction (see earlier post), tells a story of two picnics — one in which the weather is fine, the food is delicious, everyone gets along.  Ho hum.

Then she tells about the picnic when the blanket was spread on top of a nest of ants, there was no corkscrew for the wine, rain suddenly poured down, and during the dash back to the car, they were chased by a mad bull.

Which picnic is worth writing about?  Looking back at your own life, which holiday tradition or dinner is worth writing about?  The ones that had some disastrous element, of course.

So here’s the prompt:

Write about a holiday dinner or other tradition that has stuck in your mind for some reason.   Take us to your table with specific and sensory details — Name names like the mushroom dressing that Rebecca hates, Christopher’s buttery yeast rolls, Grandma Jan’s famous apple pie.  Give us all the smells.  Let us hear the ticking of the grandfather clock or the football game still on in the other room.  Let us see the faces of the people around the table, including the way they chew, or how they go to the kitchen to sneak more wine.  Let us hear some dialogue, especially the kind of talk that raises questions, creates tension.

A Bit About Craft — Powerful Verbs

Once you’ve written your holiday piece, go back and kill the adverbs.  Adverbs are weak compared to nouns and verbs.  Am I suggesting that we NEVER use them?  Not at all.  After all,  think of J.K.Rowling and Vickram Seth, author of A Suitable Boy, one of my favorite books.  They love adverbs, and they have certainly done well.  However, I think the rest of us should treat adverbs with great suspicion.

Why is that?

Instead of grabbing an adverb, let’s take the time to discover a strong verb – one that won’t need an adverb to make its meaning clear.  Let’s take the verb “to walk.”  At first, we’re lazy and use the following adverbs:  He walked briskly, slowly, haltingly, fearfully, quietly, erratically, despondently, crookedly, uprightly, evenly.  You can think of more adverbs, but don’t do it.  Instead . . .

Take a moment to replace “walked plus adverb” with one word that does the same job.  “Marched,” “sauntered,” “hobbled,” “tiptoed,” and so on.  Thinking up these new verbs takes brain energy, but your new verb shouts out specific meaning for your reader and your writing takes on the energy you gave it.  Besides all that, each time you replace a verb and an adverb with one strong verb, you save a word and lower your overall word count.

Time to soak up some sun.

Day after Thanksgiving, 2012

See you next time.

Powerful Prose

6 Nov

Bite That Bullet

Recurrent ovarian cancer is not curable; it’s manageable . . .  with diet, exercise, and chemo.  My future will undoubtedly be a series of chemo and remission, chemo and remission.  Many women manage to do this and maintain a good quality of life for many years.

Last April, even though my CT scans showed tumors, I decided to put off chemo because I felt too healthy.  Chemo makes you sick, and I didn’t want to go there.  Also, the research shows that starting chemo right away as opposed to later doesn’t seem to make an overall difference; it may just add up to more chemo and a lower quality of life.   I’ve continued to feel great, and we’ve had a super wonderful healthy energetic carefree delightful summer and fall.  Unfortunately,  in spite of all those adjectives, a miracle didn’t happen.  My cancer has continued to grow.  I’m now scheduling four rounds of chemo, starting soon after Thanksgiving.

All this is to say that I remember my chemo brain of two years ago.  This blog may go in spurts and pauses for a while.  What I say may not even make any sense.  Who knows what my befuddlement will bring us.  It could be interesting.  Stay tuned.

Power in our Writing

A couple of years ago, I taught a course called Powerful Prose.  The first class was a banquet as we tasted our wonderful language — listening to the noise words make.  We filled our platters with alliteration, made-up words, preposterous ideas. We talked about why some phrases are “catchy”:  Leave it to Beaver; Breaking Bad; Gone With the Wind; Make Love Not War; Power of the Press; and so on.  (Why are those memorable?  Is it because of the shortness of the words?  The repetition of consonants?  The rhyme?)

All of the above.

Learn to Listen

Little children are tuned into the sounds of words.  “Trip Trap Trip Trap went the three billy goats gruff.”  “Not by the hair of my chinny chin chin.”  These lines NEED to be read out loud.  Once we begin to read silently, we lose some ability to listen to the sounds of words.   How can we get that back?

For starters, in class, we made lists of words that intrigue and delight us.  We shared these with a buddy, speaking each word with great attention to how it feels in the mouth, how it hits the air.  My list had these words: artichoke, bountiful, bodacious, outlandish, to name a few.   Parsimonious . . . a good one.  I want to say this word over and over.  I keep a back page of my notebook for more words:  punctilious, scappoose, plainsong, brunch.

Fool Around

In class, we read out loud from Gertrude Stein, Jabberwocky, and a Just-So story.  Nonsense flowed, and we began to loosen up our ideas of what makes a proper sentence, a proper story.  We noticed prose rhythms, the effects of consonants and vowels, long words, short sentences.  We noticed powerful verbs that surprised us with flexibility of meaning.   At home, you can reach for a book of poems or prose by a good writer.  Forget about meaning.  Read out loud, with great attention to the sounds.  PERFORM them.  Have fun.

“Steering the Craft” by Ursula K. Le Guin

Writing Prompt

Many of these ideas come from Ursula LeGuin through her book, Steering The Craft.
On page 26,  BEING GORGEOUS, she says:

Write a paragraph to a page (150-300 words) of narrative that’s meant to be read aloud.  Use onomatopoeia, alliteration, repetition, rhythmic effects, made-up words or names, dialect — any kind of sound-effect you want.

Write it for children, if that’s the only way you can give yourself permission to do it.   Have fun, cut loose, play around with word sounds and rhythms.  This is a read-aloud piece, performance prose.

This can be done more than once, by the way, as a warm-up piece.  I’m interested in what happens when YOU follow this prompt.  Did you find a voice that you don’t often use?  Did you hate doing this?  Love it?  Share the piece in your writer’s group.  It’s not for critique; it’s for enjoying.  Please let me know what happens.

Lucy Farewell and Kim Stafford’s Memoir

23 Oct

Lucy at Walker Lake

Two weeks ago we had to say goodbye to a dear friend, our dog Lucy.  She was with us for fourteen years and was a champion soccer player and wonderful hiking companion.  Yellow labs have to be the best; she never stopped trying to please us, never stopped loving us.  She’s featured in Second-Chance Summer, my latest book for kids, which gives me another good reason to get that book out into the world.  This photo is of a quilted wall hanging made for me in 2004 by writer Bett Kearl.  She kept asking for a photo of Lucy, and this beautiful piece was the result.

What am I reading?

I’m excited to share a new book — memoir — written by Kim Stafford, Director of the NW Writing Institute at Lewis & Clark College in Portland.  I’ve loved his writing for years.

100 Tricks Every Boy Can Do: How My Brother Disappeared is Stafford’s attempt to make sense of his brother’s suicide at age 40.   Beautifully written in short memory bursts, he shows us the closeness of two brothers, only a year apart in age, as they grow up in the fifties.  They are there for each other until, imperceptibly, the disappearing begins.  A kind of unknowing, a not paying enough attention,  Seeing changes that are at first overlooked and then denied. 

I learned about this book from the Grassroots Bookstore newsletter and, best of all,  the fine people at the store added a link to Stafford’s blog about writing the book.  He called it “How a Book Can Set You Free.”

From that essay, we learn that Stafford “built” this book using techniques that my former students will recognize, going back into memory to reconstruct little pictures — vignettes.  For example, he writes a short piece about their night-time ritual when they were small boys.  Another piece is about the time he had no gift for his brother.  There was a camping trip to the foot of Broken Top, and so on.  The book is made up of these short pieces, not necessarily in chronological order, but making sense, adding up to a whole.  In his post, he tells us how he sat down with the newly published book for the first time in his hands and began to read a story that might have been written by someone else.

I followed him through the 1960s—a puritan in the summer of love, a pacifist in the era of the Draft. I followed him through the drama of early love, first jobs, wandering, then marriage. Working the fire crew in high peaks, as lightning played over the mountains chanting with his buddies, “Strike! Strike!” Eager for fire . . . his music . . . his reticence . . . I leaned closer. What was about to happen?

I cried for him as I read. He caught me. But his story was no longer a stone harnessed to my heart. My heart was not carrying him any more. I had been released from this lonesome duty, for his story was in a book in my hands. And the story had a resolution that consoled me, as by a voice beyond myself. 

As you write your own story, I hope this wondrous thing -this sense of resolution — will happen to you.  During the writing, we worry about what people will think –especially family members.  We recoil from going back to face the demons, relive the horrors.  But as we keep writing, we rise above our fears and regrets; we make a kind of sense of them.  And maybe, (I hope) we even forgive ourselves.  It’s this powerful, supremely satisfying sense of resolution that makes me want to read (and write) memoir.

I respect those of you who dare to write memoir.   I give you my deepest sympathy for the pain you may have to relive.  But I also send my hearty congratulations!  You are strong.  Keep rowing that boat.  We’re there rowing with you, all of us together in this life.

Do You Need a Prompt?

Probably not, after reading what’s above.  Get going on those vignettes.  Little paragraphs, filled with as many sensory details as you can manage.  Toss these into a shoebox for safe keeping.  Who knows?  One of these days, the little pieces will add up to a book.

BEAD BY BEAD —> BIRD BY BIRD

10 Oct

“Turkey Monster Thanksgiving” in the forefront

Weekend before last, I signed books in Florence, Oregon, at the second annual Festival of Books.  A very nicely organized, easy-to-do festival, but still not enough children coming through.  Perhaps, next year, the organizers will get more buzz into the schools.

Can you see the wall hanging in the photo?  Created by my friend, Jan Dymond, it’s a Velcro-The-Beak-on-the -Turkey mural.  At book signings for kids, we hang it lower and let the kids go at it. 

The children who came by loved the cover illustrations of the Katie Jordan series.  Almost every child who picked up a copy, wanted to own one.   Check out Tuesday Mourning, the illustrator.  I’m hoping she’ll illustrate the cover of Second-Chance Summer.

BEAD BY BEAD

Here it is, the famous wedding necklace.  It’s done; it’s beautiful, and Amy loves it.

Amy’s necklace

Made of pearls and silver-lined crystal seed beads, it sparkles more than in the picture.  One of the nicest pieces I’ve ever beaded, and it went beautifully with the gorgeous gown my daughter wore last Saturday.  What does beading have to do with writing?  Think about how they both get done:  bead by bead, and WORD BY WORD!  Tiny building blocks that eventually lead to something good.

WHICH LEADS US VERY NATURALLY TO . . . BIRD BY BIRD

One of my favorite books about writing, this book by Anne Lamott is full of good solid advice and enthusiasm about writing.  Why this title?  She tells us that many years ago, her ten-year-old brother was assigned a paper about birds.  He had spent three months, gathering information, books, paper and pencils,but was immobilized by the project. The night before the paper was due, with nothing yet written, he went in despair to his father.

“Then my father sat down beside him,” Lamott writes, “put his arm around my brother’s shoulders and said, ‘Bird by bird, buddy.  Just take it bird by bird’.”

WORDS OF WISDOM

Lamott believes that we are often stymied by the huge task in front of us.  She suggest “short assignments,” writing only as much as will fit into a one-inch picture frame.   For example, she suggest we write one paragraph that “describes the main character the very first time we meet her, when she first walks out the front door and onto the porch.”  She continues:   “I am not even going to describe the expression on her face when she first notices the blind dog sitting behind the wheel of her car — just what I can see through the one-inch picture frame. “

Can you limit yourself to such small writing exercises?  Of course, you can.  Will they get you closer to writing a book?  Of course, they will.

E.L. Doctorow said, “Writing a novel is like driving a car at night.  You can see only as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.”

Bird By Bird by Anne Lamott

Lamott is famous for her advice about SHITTY FIRST DRAFTS.  Good advice, because it gives us permission to let go of the perfectionism that halts us in mid-sentence.   Writing a shitty first draft, she says, is how we get to good second drafts and terrific third drafts.   This is the way all writers do it, she says, except for one person, and she doesn’t really like that person.

Humor.  Insightful advice.  The certainty that she encounters the same problems that challenge all of us.  We are not alone. 

OVERCOMING FUNK AND STARTING YOUR MEMOIR

20 Sep

Emmett’s vest — done!

IN A FUNK

It’s been more than two weeks since I last wrote.  What’s going on?

Too busy finishing the little baby vest?  As you can see, it DID get done.

Have I been too busy with “stuff” for my daughter’s wedding?  Too busy camping on the Metolius River and listening to great folk music in Sisters?  I did add a page to this blog about my illness.  That was writing, but I kept putting off writing this post.

I know myself after all these writing years, and I see a pattern:  After a major rejection, it takes me a while to regroup.  When I pull out my writing spirit and look at it, I see it’s squashed flat.  And like those Chinese papers that you drop into a glass of water, it needs to slowly unfurl and plump itself back into shape.

My book.  My time, my energy were all in that book that was rejected.  Besides that, the story says something important to kids.  About families.  Privacy.  Sorrow.  Hope.  Courage.   All of it — good stuff — rejected.

Self-publishing it is still an option, but right now, I need to find myself, my writing self, again.

How do I do that?

GO EASY

  • I’ve been trying to treat myself — smell the roses that are on my coffee table.
  • Acknowledge that I’m grieving.  Whine a little. (or a lot.)
  • Diddle around on the computer.  Okay, that means playing quite a few games of Mahjong solitaire, but before I leave my desk, I try to write a few stupid sentences in my journal.  Gently now.  I’ve left the Wordperfect file open so I can get to it easily.  I even left the cursor set on the next sentence.  I’ll write a little something.  Maybe I’ll call it “practicing typing skills.”
  • In the meantime, I should probably tidy up my office.  Who can possibly work in here anyway, in this mess?
  • While I’m at it, maybe tackle the utility room?
  • Time heals.
  • The most important thing:  I must keep writing.  Anything at all.

MEMOIR:  PLEASE WRITE IT ABOUT YOURSELF

Writers in my classes, and most recently, a friend last week in Sisters, have told me they want to write a memoir — about a parent.  About a daughter.  About a grandmother.  Their eyes glow with excitement.  What a life that person had, they tell me.  It will make a great book.

I beg to differ.

Please consider writing about YOU!  YOUR life.

It’s the story only YOU can tell.

Let’s turn this idea around and imagine that YOUR son or daughter has decided to write your story.  “Gee, Mom, your life is inspiring.  I want to write it.”   A compliment.  But at the same time, an affront.  How can they possibly know the things you know– the deep-inside things, like the smell of the hollyhock dolls you made, the touch of your grandma’s hand on your forehead, the softness of the bunnies that were in the backyard pen, the agony of wearing a homemade dress to the prom.

WRITE YOUR OWN STORY!  Don’t put it off for your children or anyone else to botch up.

As you write your own story, chances are your own parents, your grandparents will be part of it.  In that way their lives will be captured, but through an honest, more valid viewpoint.

Yours.

How to get started?

WRITING PROMPTS FOR STARTING MEMOIR

THE MAP EXERCISE

Taken from Bill Roorbach’s book, Writing Life Stories, a book I highly recommend.

Make a map of the earliest neighborhood you can remember.  Add the streets, the neighbors, the hiding place, the scary neighbor.  Name these; be specific.  Or make a map of your house — your bedroom, the kitchen, any part of the house where important things happened.

If you’re like me, your map will be a sketchy thing.  The main thing is that you’re opening a memory drawer and rummaging around in it.  One memory after another is bound to pop up.  Start writing about these with as many specific and sensory details as possible.  Go back and add more smells, tastes, sounds to these.  Capture the emotion of the event, if possible, by giving us a bit about the light, the darkness, the weather, the way your stomach felt.

Remember, if you’re writing about an event, you can begin with the action of it.  We usually don’t need all the background and all the intro.  Just begin with something happening.  Get to it.

YOUR LIFE — EVERY FIVE YEARS

On the left side of a paper, list the years of your life in five-year periods.  0-5, 6-10, etc.  Try to recall a major event in your life for each five-years.  For example, at age 9, I got my first bike.  Independence!  How sweet it was!

LOCATE THE TURNING POINTS

When did your life take its turns?  What events forced you to move out of your usual rhythms.  What set you back?  What helped you grow?  Write about these — and again, just give us the actions, the people who were there, what they were doing.  Imagine that you are capturing a pivotal moment in a snapshot on your camera.  Who else was there?  Where exactly did it happen?  Was there weather?  Furniture or props.  What were people wearing.  What did their faces look like?

Photos are limited, however, so you’ll need to enhance your imaginary photo with details of smells and tastes and sounds.  Write, write, write.

Don’t worry about polishing any of these.  They are great jumping off places, however, for what you may eventually want to write and polish.  Save them, get them out every now and then and see what other memories come to you.  Write those down.  Are you getting pages and pages of writing done?  Yes, you are.

And that’s how it all begins.