December 2019 archive

Banana Moons & Meerkats & Tigers, Oh, My! Writing Snapshot Memoir

ON THE LONGEST NIGHT OF THE YEAR, my mom and I strolled softly lit paths through the wooded grounds of the Central Florida Zoo during the Asian Lantern Festival. As we wandered, we encountered illuminated lanterns shaped like crescent moons and meerkats and life-sized hippotamuses—and, yes, tigers. Oh, my!

Now that she’s 85, I treasure sharing quiet adventures like this with my mom. So I took pictures—lots of them. Of the tigers and cheetahs and dragon lanterns, yes. But also of my mom. Because these are moments I’ll want to remember, and the pictures will help me do so. But I know I can drop even deeper into those moments by writing about the photos that capture them.

In a blog post titled Why Do We Write? A New Year’s Exploration, I quick-list a dozen reasons I write (and in the post, I invite you to explore your reasons for writing, too!). While I somehow forgot to include “preserving memories” on that list, doing so is one of the wonderful gifts writing gives to us.

I’m not alone in thinking this. Natalie Goldberg says writers live twice: first in their immediate experiences and second in writing about them. Of course, if we have photos of our experiences, we have the opportunity to home in on details we might have forgotten otherwise. And vice versa: When we write from photographs of our lives, we tend to discover what’s hidden beneath a photo’s surface.

Snapshot memoirs

There’s even a sub-genre dedicated to writing from our pictured memories, the snapshot memoir (also known as flash memoir). In this form, we may be writing from actual images—on our phones or in our photo albums—or from indelible snapshots in our mind’s eye. Either way, though flash memoir is different from flash fiction—because we focus on our own lives rather than on the created lives of imagined others—many of the rules of flash fiction apply to this super-short memoir form, too.

Readers Write: THE SUN MAGAZINE

THE SUN MAGAZINE has a wonderful feature called Readers Write, in which SUN readers are invited to write and submit their own snapshot-sized pieces about real-life moments. On THE SUN’s site, you’ll find examples of published Readers Write pieces as well as the prompts and guidelines governing their submission process.

Mini-memoir writing prompt

Setting aside just ten minutes with pen in hand and a photo in front of you, travel back to the moment the snapshot has captured in its frame. Allow yourself to enter the picture. Look around carefully. Now, peek outside the frame to your memory of the wider context. What’s going on to the left of the image? To the right? Who’s taking the photo? Why?

You might take a deep breath and dive into the emotions the image evokes—both the sweet feelings and the bittersweet. Or maybe the photo calls to mind associated memories that add to the meaning and magic of that particular instant in time.

However deep you’re ready to delve, imagine the photo as a treasure map. It’s full of possibilities for sure! But to access the gold it promises, we need to follow the path the map reveals. When we write about the image before us, sentence by sentence, we step steadily toward riches the photo can only hint at. Because the real treasure lives inside us. And our pen creates the road that will take us there.

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Give YOURSELF These 12 Gifts for the New Year, Writer!

DAYS SPEED BY, BUT WRITING GOES SLOW. It’s in its nature. We pre-write, draft, redraft, review, revise, edit, and proofread—just to get 500 decent words where we want them. Instead of railing against the constraints time puts on our writing process, we can choose to drop below time’s dictates and give ourselves an opportunity to move at the pace of writing, rather than demanding our writing perform at the hectic pace of life.

To that end, here are twelve gifts to give to your writerly self this coming year. You might want to unwrap one a month between now and next December. May each of these exercises nourish your writing needs and give your creative self a chance to breathe.

1. Visit a used bookstore. Browse dusty shelves for treasure. Settle on the floor in the picture book aisle and allow your inner kid to journey through the illustrated worlds you find there.

2. Journal. Curl up on the couch one Sunday morning and write with no agenda, no goal. Take this time to discover what you think, what you feel, what you mourn, what you hope for … all by writing it down.

3. Discover a new-to-you author. Ask writing pals to recommend writers they think you’d enjoy. Check out the new releases section of your local library. Or read THE NEW YORK TIMES Book Review, join a book group, or sign up for Goodreads. Let other writers share their gift with you this year.

4. Start a manageable new writing project. Perhaps you’ve always wanted to create a kids’ book about a favorite toy. Or compile your grandmother’s recipes, updated to make the most of today’s kitchen gadgetry. Or collect photographs of your cats, caption the images, and produce a few copies just for you and your cat-crazy friends (or is that just me?). A new project can add fuel to your writing life. Just make sure it’s the right size to bring to completion this year. Because writing “The End” on a draft is a sweet reward for a (small) job well done.

5. Make a date with a writing pal. A cup of coffee, a croissant, and congenial company create the perfect ambiance for a few quick, free-writing sessions. (I’ve got about a zillion writing prompts on my blog that you’re welcome to use for this purpose! Just search “prompts.”)

6. Take a walk. While you’re strolling, keep an eye out for interesting sights and occurrences. Maybe snap a few pictures along the way. When you get home, take just ten minutes to write about what you saw.

7. Record your dreams. Keep a notebook by your bed and jot details from your dreams a few mornings in a row. This lets your unconscious know you’re listening, making it more likely that it will offer up the fresh goods next time you need access to its wild, imaginative leaps.

8. Nap. Or, if you’re not a napper, steal an hour out of an otherwise busy day for horizontal couch time. Flick through a magazine (check out THE SUN MAGAZINE!), or read a short story or personal essay. Snuggling with an available cat, optional.

9. Take a writing retreat. Depending upon your resources, this might be a month-long writing residency on Martha’s Vineyard, four days at the Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers retreat, or a weekend holed up in your own cozy den with no interruptions and no other plans but to read and write.

10. Follow your nose. You know how sometimes you’re online looking for one thing and something else catches your eye? And reading about that next thing, you see something even more intriguing? Great! Indulge that! Follow your nose from interest to interest, filling the thirsty well of your mind with tidbits that may come in handy in some future writing project—or may not. Even if you never use any of that cool stuff, I bet your writing self considers the time well spent. (Brain Pickings is a great place to start your nose-following quest!)

11. Earmark November. Each November, writers around the world take on the NaNoWriMo challenge. Short for “National Novel Writing Month,” NaNoWriMo provides support to get bigger projects done. While the NaNo official goal is 50,000 words on the first draft of a new novel, you might piggyback on NaNoWriMo’s energetic community to complete a more modest project—a short story, for instance, or one of those manageable projects you started back at number 4!

12. Throw your writer self a party. Pull out all the writing you’ve created this year and celebrate the sheer number of words you got on the page. Raise a glass, bake a cake, fling confetti. You’ve done good. Congratulations!

* * *

Marina Shemesh has released this “Balanced Stones On White Background” image under Public Domain license CC0 Public Domain. I appreciate the opportunity to use it here.

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Improv + Writing = High-Wire Fun (A Tarot-ish Writing Prompt)

I TOOK IMPROVISATIONAL ACTING CLASSES FOR A COUPLE OF YEARS. This exercise is the perhaps unorthodox child of those experiences and my crazy love of a complicated writing prompt. Here’s how I offered it in a writing workshop, once upon a time …

Writing prompt

With Six You Get Egg Roll
Start by describing a vacant setting. One character enters—with justification. (Why did your character come “on stage”? What are they after? Add some internals to let your reader know.)

After a bit, a second character joins the first—also with justification. Characters One and Two interact. Then Character Three joins the cast. All three play their roles, until Number Four, and then Five, enter in turn. (Add a Number Six, and you win the egg roll!)

Five Fingers on My Hand
The trick? All your characters enter with reasonable justification, each has an agenda, and your drama engages them all: Think, mini-scenes, embroilment, cross-talk, cross-purposes, competition.

Count Down
Then, for equally good reasons, in reverse order of their entrances, each character leaves the scene until your setting is once again an empty stage.

Harold and Maude
Improv actors will recognize this exercise as a Harold, a classic improv device. Writers will recognize this exercise as a neat trick that forces them out of the box of two- or even three-character scenes. Past Monday night workshoppers will recognize this as a fresh pat of butter used to sizzle the creative (vegan) bacon of their agile brains.

What do you think?
Five? Six? Seven? How many characters can you get on and off the stage of your story while still holding tight to the belt loop that suspends your reader’s disbelief?

Tarot-ish

The “tarot” part of this writing prompt is illustrated by the Five of Wands from THE STEAMPUNK TAROT, by Barbara Moore and Aly Fell, and used here with kind permission of Llewellyn Worldwide.

As you can see in the image above, five characters are engaged in a confrontation of some sort. The Five of Wands typically represents a hotly contested competition, a chaotic bid for power between factions, opposing voices or ideas, or a flair-up of conflicting goals.

Whether it’s a family drama, a bar brawl, or a political debate gone bad, it’s never pleasant to find ourselves smack in the middle of such a real-life clash of energy. However, if your fictional characters start acting out like this, you’re in luck!

Writing inspiration

From A GAME OF THRONES, by George R. R. Martin; to THE KNOWN WORLD, by Edward P. Jones; to SCORPION STRIKE, by John J. Nance, big conflicts drive big stories. Dramatic books about sports, like CHARIOTS OF FIRE, by W. J. Weatherby; SELECTION DAY, by Aravind Adiga; and FRIDAY NIGHT LIGHTS, by H. G. Bissinger, get much of their juice from the tension brought by competition. And family dramas? Well, they are dramatic precisely because of the strife experienced between characters with the most intimate of bonds.

So, while you probably don’t want to court such struggle in your day-to-day relationships, when you’re writing fiction, slap a version of the Five of Wands up on your inspiration board as a reminder to let your major characters knock each other around with big (metaphoric) sticks … until the dust settles and a winner emerges from the fray.

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Bet You Can Do Better Than IKEA! (A Very Useful Writing Prompt)

WRITING CAN LIFT US TO FLIGHTS OF FANCY or, like a draft mule, it can pull the plow of practicality from one end of the field to the other. Here, we explore the mule end of the spectrum, with what’s called a “process essay.”

The process essay (which you might remember from your Comp 1 class) offers step-by-step directions to guide a reader through a task. Sure, it’s more about treading the well-tilled field of communication than lifting off into the wild blue of fantasy. But it can be a playful form as well as an informative one—and it’s a good exercise in organizing your thoughts on the page. (Sound too boring to even consider? Look below for some reasons you might want to give it a try!*)

Writing prompt: the process essay (which, with some clever packaging, can double as a holiday gift, if you’re well and truly stuck!*)

Start by identifying a skill at which you excel. It could be something simple, like writing an Amazon review, driving a stick shift, or grooming a standard poodle. On the more complex end of the spectrum, you might know exactly how to prepare for an Ironman Triathalon, paint the exterior of a house on the National Register of Historic Places, or outline a novel!

This is the stuff of YouTube video tutorials … but you’re going to slow it down, writing out each step in a way that a reader can follow. (Think IKEA assembly instructions—only with words … and humanly possible.)

*Why write a process essay?

Since ’tis the season, you might include a process essay as part of gift! For example, you could write out your mulled cider recipe and package it with the ingredients needed to brew up a pot. Or you might wrap up a few dreidels, with instructions about how to play the classic Hanukkah game. Or, if you’re a killer door-wreath creator, along with the wreath you give, share the details of how you fancy up those bauble-laden bad boys!

If you blog or teach or coach, you might want to use this opportunity to create written instructions for something your students or readers would benefit from, then use those instructions in a blog post or lesson. (Handouts, anyone?)

And if you write fiction, writing a process essay can take you deep into your main character’s area of expertise. Our fictional folks have entire lives gliding beneath the surface of the stories we tell about them. Knowing your stuff about what they do and how they do it will add depth and authority to your literary worlds!

Finally, if you really, really, REALLY like doing this exercise, you might have a calling as a technical writer.

Writing inspiration

Want some step-by-step directions to writing your step-by-step process essay? Check out this article on the BEST ESSAY TIPS website.

Travel essays often include aspects of process writing. For instance, the writer might explain how to get to a location, how to stay safe once you’re there, how to find the best bargains, or how to discover the most exotic meals. Check out the 2019 edition of the annual THE BEST AMERICAN TRAVEL WRITING, edited by Jason Wilson and Alexandra Fuller for examples.

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Why Do We Write? A New Year’s Exploration!

ON THE LAST NIGHT OF EVERY WORKSHOP, I used to end with an exercise by Natalie Goldberg.* It’s pretty simple. List a dozen reasons that you write. They can be Work with mecommon-sensical: I write to communicate, or farther-fetched: I write because the fairies want to speak to me, and when I scribble fast enough, they take over my pen and let me know what they have to say.

Fortunately, there are an infinite number of points along the continuum between common sense and, um, fairies! For instance, here’s my (current) list:

  • I write because my father wished he were a writer, so I do it for him.
  • I write because it gives me something to do with my hands, and I’m no good at needle crafts.
  • I write because when I settle down on the couch with a pen and notebook, all three cats come and sit near me.
  • I write because sometimes a pleasing turn of phrase or odd story emerges unexpectedly from my pen.
  • I write because all of my friends are writers.
  • I write because I love the visual pattern my handwriting makes across the page.
  • I write because I have about seventeen gazillion books on writing—and they’re all inspiring!
  • I write because it’s fun to do in a café (and might even make me look interesting).
  • I write because I have a blog and a book to finish.
  • I write because I have things to say about writing and about tarot.
  • I write because it’s expected of me.
  • I write because nothing feels quite as good as having written!

Writing prompt

It’s the end of the year, a good time to take stock. Make yourself a cup of nog or indulge in a sweet, flavored coffee (’tis the season, after all) and dig in to this question: Why do I write? As with any free-writing exercise, move your hand (or fingers) as fast as you can. Don’t stop to think. Get as far beneath the common-sensical as you’re able. Who knows? If you dive deep enough, you might find a few fairies to chat with!

TABLE FOR TWO?
As years of workshops attest, this is a wonderful prompt to do with others. So instead of going it alone, grab a café table and a friend, set a timer, and see who can get the most items scrawled on their list in ten minutes. (Although I asked workshoppers to find twelve reasons they write, going further, to fifty or even a hundred reasons, can really loosen up your brain and get it to bring wilder, more exciting ideas to the fore!)

WRITING RESOLUTION
Once you’ve got your “why’s” for writing, you might use one or more items on your list to guide you as you form your New Year’s writing resolution. Knowing why we write can create a foundation that supports our writing throughout the year—long after we’ve torn off January’s calendar page.

***

*You’ll find Goldberg’s Why I Write exercise and its accompanying essay in her first book on writing, WRITING DOWN THE BONES.

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