As a memoir coach, I’m always on the lookout for fresh writing exercises. In particular, I love memoir writing prompts that invite us to see past experiences differently. This particular memoir exercise is a weird trip. It will turn your writing—and your insights—inside out!
Called “Cut and Paste,” the exercise is attributed to Jack Meyers. I first tried it during my Amherst Artists & Writers (AWA) writing workshop leadership training. The directions, as included in the AWA handbook, WRITING ALONE AND WITH OTHERS, by Pat Schneider, are deceptively simple.
Write a short poem or prose piece in a gentle, happy, or peaceful tone; write a poem or prose piece of the same length in a sad, upset, angry tone; cut and paste the two together, alternating lines without trying to make sense of them at first.
I offered this exercise in a memoir-writing workshop. It was an experiment. But then, it always is: Arm a roomful of folks with pens, season with several pots of strong java, then wait and see what happens.
I wrote alongside the memoirists and ended up with this piece. It’s more than usually disjointed because the chronology of the events (divvied up into separate, interspersed tracks) is awkward.
But it does a good job of showing how the memory of two fairly mundane events—in this case, arriving for a ballroom dance lesson and my first ocular migraine—collide to make more meaning than they had as stand-alone events.
Here’s my example!
It was the height of my Tiny Dancer phase,
and the center of my vision,
(I described my symptoms to the tech),
standing under the oaks,
(“Opthalmic migraine,” she said,)
outside my ballroom dance instructor’s house,
gone dark. My first thought?
car trunk open, showing him brand new shoes:
My second thought?
(“It should go away.”)
tight as black suede gloves, arched insteps,
Even blind, I can do my job.
ankle straps, Spanish heels,
I’ll just have to listen harder.
(But they still surprise me,)
“Nice leather,” he was saying, as I noticed
“There’s something wrong,”
(the numbing jaw,)
the flash of light at the corner of one eye,
I told the circle of blackness,
(the shattered light,)
rubbed at it,
where Michael’s face had been.
(the failing core of vision)
turned to him, dance shoes dangling,
He led me up the concrete path,
sharp, silver buckles.
(reminding me just how tentative)
and the sky above,
into the cool, dim studio,
(is this funny life,)
fractured into a gray/green/white kaleidoscope of shards.
(slipped into its seemingly sturdy little shoe).
Seems a little crazy, right? But give this a try, and allow the language of your prose writing to take you on a ride into the poetry of chance.
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Memoir is such a powerful evocation of a life. I’ve been honored to work through the ins and outs of the memoir process with many writers. The reasons for creating a memoir are as varied as the folks who share their stories. But what they all have in common is a desire to tell their truth in a way that can move—and maybe inspire—readers. Writing a memoir? I can help. Schedule a free 30-minute consultation with me. Also, check out THE WRITER mag article “Should I Hire a Writing Coach.”