Exercises for Writing Creative Nonfiction Help (page 4)
Exercises for Writing Creative Nonfiction
Personal essays, vignettes, flash nonfiction, letters, and journals culminate not only in the evocation of particular human questions and insights, but in the dissemination of information and the education of readers on particular subjects, the ones the writers are exploring to find answers to life questions.
When you sit down to write creative nonfiction, you may have a word length in mind or the idea for a whole book. You may want to write in journal entries or in one long paragraph, in letter form, or in essays that follow rhetorical patterns of thinking.
The exercises that follow will help you use the material you have from your life, research, and knowledge to write first-person pieces that move and inform others as well as focus or change your perceptions about what you have experienced.
Just Add Water: An Experimental Mini-Essay in a Can by Dinty W. Moore
Author of the memoir Between Panic and Desire and editor of BrevityMag.com, Dinty W. Moore, helps students work in creative nonfiction with this exercise:
Many writers habitually compose memoir-based nonfiction as if someone had once ruled "all childhood stories must be told in chronological order." Though there is obvious utility to relating events in the order in which they occurred, this tidy approach can also be very limiting. Often, it is the juxtaposition of events that gives one's childhood memories meaning, and sometimes the odd juxtaposition becomes a gathering place for discovery and fresh insight. Logic, in other words, is not the only way into the truth.
The following exercise forces incongruity. It also teaches the importance of detail—nouns and verbs, specific moments and particular things. Finally, the exercise encourages the writer to trust "chance" to a certain extent. Seasoned writers often marvel over some element or another that just seemed to show up, unbidden, in their writing, yet ended up being alive, surprising, and richer than where the author was headed. This, of course, is the unconscious reaching up and through the rational mind, but at times it seems random and capricious. If some oddity of detail or language appears in your writing, and it works, then keep it there, and be thankful. You don't have to know why!
The first draft that results from the eight steps listed below may result in a finished experimental mini-essay. I have assigned this to students who subsequently published the (revised and polished) version. But at the very least, it almost always generates rich and fruitful raw material.
Important Note: As hard as I know this will be to do, this exercise works best if you do not read ahead. Don't read step two until you've assembled your index cards and pencil. Don't read step three until you've completed step two. Trust me, it works.
Large index cards are best for this exercise, but they may not always be available, so separate sheets of paper will work as well. This can be done alone, but works even better with writing partners or small groups. You may want to set a timer—give yourself about five minutes for each step.
- Assemble four over-sized index cards (or four separate sheets of paper).
- On the first card: Describe a smell from your past. Don't worry whether or not it is a significant or important smell; all that matters is that it remains in your "memory bank" 10 or 20 or 30 years later. Describe the smell, the quality of the odor. Is it sour or sweet, smoky or clean, sharp or dull? Does it remind you of anything? Keep this to around four or five sentences.
- On the second card: Describe part of someone you love, but just a part. Stick to one physical aspect—your mother's hair, your Aunt Lula's elbows, your little brother's teeth. Be specific. Instead of "dad had rough hands," describe the texture of the palms, the shape of the fingers, the bruises or cuts, the caked oil in the seams. No more than six sentences.
- On the third card: Pick a snippet of conversation from your past, something you heard all of the time when you were younger. It can be significant—a parent's correction or sharp criticism—or seemingly insignificant—a dumb joke your older brother made every time you sat down to eat chili. It can be anything at all. The only requirement is that you heard it and that it remains in your memory bank, for whatever reason. Do NOT illuminate, describe, or elucidate. Just give us the quote: "Drink your milk. You want to have strong bones, don't you?" "I don't like milk." "Don't come crying to me when you're old and rickety."
- On the fourth card: Construct a disjointed list of 30 words, primarily nouns, or nouns with some slight modification. Each of these words or phrases describes a remembered something in your past. For instance, my list looks like this: "Ringo. Sled. Uncle Clem's wooden leg. Cooked cabbage. Howdy Doody. Bugs. Sycamore tree." In this instance, it is not important to give enough information for the reader to fully understand. Just make your list. No phrase more than four words long. Thirty words. (It often works best to write 45 words, and then cross some out.)
- When you have completed the five steps above, take the four cards and shuffle them in random order.
- At the top of each card, write a number 1 through 4.
- To the first card, add this title: "Why I Am Who I Am."
You have now written an experimental essay, in collage form. Read it out loud, including the title, and the numbers at the top of each card. Marvel at the unexpected connections and odd logic.
I Just Don't Understand You, Another Exercise from Dinty W. Moore
Dinty W. Moore continues:
Too often, we write about other people because we think we know something about that person, or because we feel that we can weigh in with intelligent correctness on their actions or the choices they have made. Too often as well, we end up sounding like mister- or ms.-know-it-all. Whether we are writing about a celebrity or politician, someone who lives just down the street, or a relative—perhaps a seldom-visited grandfather—the assumption that we actually know someone's motives and understand what factors into their behavior is a dicey one at best. Life is complicated, and people are hard to fathom.
So think a moment about the people you do not comprehend, and would never claim to fully understand, even if you thought long and hard about it. My list would include two friends who struggled to keep together a marriage but simply could not. Neither one of them was bad or at fault. They just couldn't find the working formula, and I have no better take on what they should have done instead. Still, it seems a shame.
I also can't understand a friend who repeatedly shoots herself in the foot just when her career is taking off. Clearly, she wants to succeed, just as we all do, but something deep inside is driving her to fail. Though I have observed this behavior for years, it still makes no sense to me at all.
A less serious but equally baffling example are the folks in my neighborhood (and in most neighborhoods, I imagine) who treat their front lawns and driveways as if they were hospital operating rooms, hosing away every leaf and acorn first thing in the morning, painstakingly digging out each dandelion and virtually every green shoot that does not look like perfect Kentucky grass. Now I like my yard to look nice, but I can't see putting eight hours a week into it, and a few leaves and twigs and weeds are, to my mind, inevitable. It's autumn as I'm writing this, and not only is my lawn covered in red oak leaves, but I just noticed a stray leaf in the living room, by the front door. Mother Nature is nothing if not persistent.
Make your own list of the people who make no sense to you. You aren't firmly against their choices, and you don't have all the answers—they just baffle you. Put some real people on that list, some types of people (the lawn purists), and even famous folks if you'd like.
Now write about what you don't understand, and how unsure you are about what is going on inside the mind and heart of this person. Don't attack or suggest that you know better; just explore.
Worth 1,000 Words, An Exercise by Judith Kitchen
Judith Kitchen, author of the essay collection Distance and Direction, created this exercise for her students, beginning with an epigraph:
A photograph is both a pseudo-presence and a token of absence…
—Susan Sontag, On Photography
Traditionally, photographs have been used in nonfiction as confirmation. Placed in the middle of the biography, they confirm events, give face to people we've met in print. Scattered throughout the memoir, they attest to the truth of what we're being told. This exercise is intended to move beyond the realm of confirmation, making the photograph a part of the text itself.
They say a photograph is worth 1,000 words. Well, this exercise forces you to cut out those 1,000 words and find another 1,000 words that cannot be replaced by the image itself. Your job, then, is contemplation. Speculation. Meditation. You must surround this photograph with the thoughts and feelings that well up in you as you examine it for what it might reveal—about yourself, your memories, your assumptions, what you know you simply cannot know. You must probe its contents, and then move beyond its boundaries, thinking about what it doesn't say, what isn't in the frame.
The exercise is simple. Begin with a photograph—one that has some personal meaning: maybe a photo of your mother before she was married; your grandfather standing next to his father, a man you never knew; a place where you used to go on vacation; an album you found at a garage sale, a stranger's life sold for a dollar; your childhood pet; yourself at the age of seven, your lost tooth grinning up at you; an odd snapshot from the box on the shelf, someone you vaguely remember, but who?
Now come at the photograph from many angles. Look at it as a physical object. What is there? Look at its subject. Who inhabits its spaces? Examine the emotions it evokes. Ask it questions. What is your relationship to this scene? Who is taking the photograph? And don't forget to observe what is not there—sometimes absence is what it is all about.
Keep in mind that you may know the people in it, or the story behind it, but that your reader does not come to the photograph with any prior knowledge. Your job is to make it matter to readers as much as it matters to you—and in the way that it matters to you. You can write about the photograph, but not mere description, since you must keep in mind the 1,000 words the photograph could make redundant. If you want to tell its story, you will need to find words that do it justice. Bring to your reader what looking will not provide—the smells, the sounds, the texture of the day. You can write from the photograph, using it as a starting point, expanding on it until it comes alive for the reader, as it has for you. You can write to the photograph, speaking directly to the person there (even to your earlier self), or you can write it into being, telling its story right up to the moment of the camera's click. You can write around the photograph, or comment on it, moving in and out of its physical presence, making it a central part of your written text—necessary to it, and yet somehow removed from it as well.
Put in enough descriptive words that, even without the photo, the reader would "see" its sepia tint, the color of rusty water; or the odd angle of the shadow on the old man's face; or the serrated edge of the white frame that cuts across your uncle Henry's silhouette, stranding him half-in, half-out of the scene—as he seems to be in your memories, only half present, kind of ghostly. But move beyond description into the "tone" of the moment. Capture how it felt to slide down that slide, how high it seemed as you climbed those steps that, now that you look at it, was really not very high at all. The exhilarating, free-from-adults playground world. Wonder about your mother as a young woman, before you were born: what were her dreams? Where did they go? Why did she cut her river of hair? Give that stranger a life he may never have lived, but one that connects him to you in the odd, imaginative space that exists between you now that you own a piece of his life. Think about what is gone, how things have changed, what the photo holds for all time. Think about the nature of time.
What this exercise does it unlock your meditative voice and give it a focus. It allows you to step in and out of the "present" of your piece, saying "perhaps," and "I wonder if," and "Now it seems as though." By directing your own attention to the object itself—the photograph—you become a narrating sensibility; in other words, you find a "voice." The reader comes to know you by the way you have been thinking, and that is the very essence of nonfiction essays and memoir.
Find just the right title—something to give what you've written a context, a position or a stance from which you are looking. The final thing you should do is decide whether or not your words actually need the photograph to complete the text; it may just be that you no longer need it at all—that you've written the 1000 words that are worth one photograph.
Let the Holons Do the Work
Ken Wilber states in his book, A Brief History of Everything, that our universe is an "emergent Kosmos," which counts on creativity, the movement of chaos into form. The term Kosmos, introduced by the Pythagoreans, means "the patterned nature or process of all domains of existence, from matter to mind to God."
In his discussion, Wilber introduces 20 tenets of the Kosmos, the first being that, "Even the 'Whole' of the Kosmos is simply a part of the next moment's whole, indefinitely. At no point do we have the whole, there are only whole/ parts forever."
Wilber adopts writer Arthur Koestler's term "holons" for these "whole/parts." Each holon strives to maintain its "wholeness" and its "partness." Each has in it the ability to maintain its autonomy and its ability to fit into a whole. Wilber believes that "creativity not chance builds a universe." He prefers "Emptiness" as a term for Spirit because it means unbounded or unqualifiable. The blank page, the blank document template on my computer screen, my mind when I have no idea of what I'll write—the perfect starting places, along with the trust that one part, one holon at a time, my writing will accrue in meaning, in depth, in making something new from what has gone before, for in Wilber's words, each moment is "part of the next moment's whole, indefinitely."
When you write in parts, emulating the emergent universe, of which you are a part, you can relax a little knowing you work in a larger flow.
Here are 11 prompts for taking ordinary daily images and building lyric essays. Using these prompts, you will learn to trust in your abilities to reflect and to allow details to resonate with one another until seemingly unconnected images and anecdotes unite to evoke larger meaning from your experiences, knitting them together into whole cloth.
- Title a piece with your name or the name of your street, partner, or child. Take the letters and write a short meditation on each of the letters.
- Take the letters ABC and write a short meditation on any subject by starting each paragraph of three paragraphs with a word that starts with each letter: an A word for the first, a B word for the second, and a C word for the third. Call this meditation the ABCs of whatever subject you are writing about.
- Take the letters XYZ and write a short meditation on any subject, starting each paragraph of three paragraphs with a word that starts with each letter: an X word for paragraph one, a Y word for paragraph two, and a Z word for paragraph three. Call this meditation the XYZ of whatever topic you are writing about. It will probably evoke the difficulty of the topic you have chosen.
- Put Scrabble™ tiles or children's letter magnets in a pile and pick one or pick a letter from something printed. Pick three letters from the pile or point to three letters randomly in the printed material before you; write three short vignettes, each time associating from the letter you picked to reasons why it's important to you at this moment of this day, how it seems to go with the day. You might benefit from doing this exercise at three different times in one day or over three different days or weeks.
- Take a product out of your cupboard. Write down its name. Now use those letters and write a meditation: for example, if I chose oatmeal: O-A-T-ME- A-L, I'd write a seven-paragraph piece, beginning each paragraph with a word that starts, in order, with a letter of the word oatmeal.
- If you could have a special parking space earmarked just for you at work, on a street you often visit, and in your childhood town, what would the words reserving each space for you say? Why?
- Think of a problem in your life you cannot resolve or about a situation that you are not able to change. With this problem in the back of your mind, describe the view outside your window. First, describe what is stationary in the view; then describe what is moving. Subtitle part one "Stationary" and part two "Movement." Title the whole piece after the problem you have in the back of your mind, "Now that My Children Must Adapt to Joint Custody" or "How Will I Find the Time to be a Caregiver?"
- Imagine where you live is a place you have come to visit. Select someone living or dead to whom you might write postcards from this place. Write a series of postcards to this person similar to the kinds you would write if you were traveling as a tourist—include observations, vignettes, quotes, and text from materials you find or see in the town, snippets of history, and anecdotes about your "travels."
- Imagine that you change your outgoing message each day on your voicemail. Make up messages for each day of the week.
- Think of things you haven't shared with someone who is close to you. Write about them under a title like: "Never Mentioned" or "I Wished I'd Thought to Tell You."
- Select five or so objects from your environment, varying them from small to large, inside to outside, from new to old. After you've written in parts about each of these items, use a title like "Panorama" or "An Overview of Sorts."
Putter Inners and Taker Outers, an Exercise from Jack Heffron
In The Writers' Idea Book, Jack Heffron quotes exchanges in letters between F. Scott Fitzgerald and Thomas Wolfe as they debated approaches to narrative. "Responding to Fitzgerald's claim that highly selective writers were the real geniuses," Heffron recounts that Wolfe wrote:
You say that the great writer like Flaubert has consciously left out the stuff that Bill or Joe will come along presently and put in. Well, don't forget, Scott, that a great writer is not only a leaver-outer but also a putter-inner, and that Shakespeare and Cervantes and Dostoevsky were great putter-inners—greater putter-inners, in fact, than taker-outers....
"Putter-inners?" Heffron reacts. "Not exactly the type of phrase you'll want to tape to your computer or to drop oh-so-casually into conversations at the next literary fete. Wolfe liked to conceal his erudition behind a big-country-boy persona. He's well aware of what he's talking about. It's interesting to note that Wolfe was very much a putter-inner, while Fitzgerald was a taker-outer, and so their views reflect their own approaches to writing."
Here's a prompt Heffron suggests:
- Read a piece you've written and cut five details from it, ones you feel aren't essential to the piece.
- Then add five details to it. How has it changed?
- To extend the exercise, choose two details that are mentioned only once or twice and find ways to mention them at least two more times.
- How has their meaning changed within the piece?
I think you can create a lyric essay from this exercise, one built in parts where the insight and emotion gain momentum across the white space that separates the parts:
Write a paragraph describing a place where you lived or hung out in a time that you wanted something—to be recognized, to be able to purchase something, to win a contest or athletic event, to be loved. Number that paragraph number one and then go on to write another paragraph that you'll number two. In this paragraph, follow Heffron's exercise by repeating paragraph one and adding five details. Reflect for several sentences on those details. Then write a list, which you'll number three, that repeats the details you previously mentioned. Write a next paragraph in which you take out all the added details and add back in only some of what had originally been in the first paragraph.
What do you feel as you exit this essay? Whatever that feeling is should help you find a title to the four paragraph piece, a piece which releases some feeling in you about the time you wanted someone or something so badly.