Tag Archives: writing prompts

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.

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.