Additional Exercises for Writing Creative Nonfiction Help
Learning Words by Heart
A few years ago, I invented a way of coming to writing during times when I felt overwhelmed by my need to write, yet stuck in my inability to get anything I liked on the page. The exercise I invented ultimately helped me to create vignettes and essays from life experience when I had no idea about how to find my way into my own feelings and thoughts. This exercise relies on organizing experience through the lens of randomly chosen vocabulary words. To start, I open a dictionary with my eyes closed and let my finger point to a word. I hope I'll be pointing at one for which I don't yet know the definition. Sometimes I have to repeat this action a few times, but I stop at whatever word I find for which I don't yet know the meaning. I read the definition provided. When I write that day, I work on finding a path toward applying the word I've learned to my own experience.
The next word I chose when I used this assignment for myself was "sederunt," which means "a long sit," and spawned a way for me to digest a recent experience:
Try this exercise to find material and new perceptions. Open your dictionary. Close your eyes. Point your finger somewhere on the page. Open your eyes and look at where your finger points on the page. If you are pointing at a word you don't know the meaning of, write this meaning down. If you need to repeat the exercise to find a word you don't know, do it now.
Next, think of anecdotes that illustrate the way the notion inherent in your word's definition operates in your life. When one of these anecdotes inspires you, start to write. Introduce the word and its meaning when it feels appropriate.
Letter to a Perfectionist—Exercise on Correspondence As Creative Nonfiction by Meg Files
Author of Write from Life as well as novels, creative nonfiction, and poetry, Meg Files has helped hundreds of students write and publish their writing, and she always takes their concerns seriously. When one student's problem with writing lingered with her, Meg wrote a letter in which she imagines herself offering this student standard, useful words of writing wisdom. Once she writes those words, however, she knows that they do not quite address the real issue of the student's block. With the help of a poem she admires, Meg explores the reason she resonates with this student's particular writing problem.
While you read and receive encouragement from Meg's meditation, pay attention to the way she combines the occasion of addressing a particular person and admiration of a great poet's writing to explore a problem and come to insight. As you read Meg's letter, look for the turning point where she goes from describing the reason she is writing to figuring out an answer for herself, as well as for the person she is addressing:
Letter to a Young Perfectionist
"If it is in you to write, you will continue to write." I quote this from a New York Times Book Review article about rejection. I mean it to lend the courage to persist in the face of the world's (or your family's) failure to appreciate your poems and stories, in the face of the self-doubt that shivers through most writers now and then, or daily.
But then you are intense and gifted, stopped not by anyone's rejection or doubt but by Life: Life as it is visited by the perfectionist. Your studies, your responsibilities, your work consume your time, though your time wants to be eaten by writing. And if Life won't stand still long enough to allow for the perfection of the work before deadline, then in despair you are ready to give up.
I'd give a different student some ready answers: That's okay, show a draft, we have to do the crummy work to get to the good stuff, turn off the judgmental editor in your head, you're writing something and that's what matters, you're building skills, so every story isn't perfect, so what, if you write only twenty minutes a day those pages will pile up, give yourself a break, cut yourself some slack, you're only human.
But your frustration so echoes my own that I can't offer up the easy answers.
If we aren't continuing to write, then does that mean it isn't in us to write? The New York Times fails to address the question.
My life is crowded with work, most of it work I love. I won't take space to list it all, for I'm the one who loves it and the recitation would sound like bragging or whining. All perfectionists have their lists. Into my crowded life, I cram extra projects, projects I want to do. (And I'm the only one who can do it all just the perfect way I want it done. Go ahead and make fun, it's still the truth.) The rest of the good life—a hike with the dog, dinner made from a friend's garden produce, a hand-holding movie, books and books and books—is guilty indulgence that we perfectionists can't give ourselves up to wholeheartedly. And writing? If it is in us to write (and, truly, we know that it is), then why aren't we continuing to write?
When I look to poetry for answers, I linger over my favorite Andrew Marvell poem, "To His Coy Mistress." In it, the suitor argues to his beloved that if they had all the time in the world, he'd lavish his full, slow attention on her because she deserves this. Two years for each breast. But. There's always a "but." "But at my back I alwaies hear/Times wingéd chariot hurrying near." Think of it: It is our beloved writing we wish to lavish long attention on, but always, always frantic duty crowds us.
And what is ahead according to Marvell? "And yonder all before us lye/Desarts of vast eternity.
I hear no promise that beyond the grave I'll have a celestial computer that will never crash or fail to save my heavenly creations. The truth? "… into ashes all my lust." It's a grim picture: time's a-wasting, and then we die.
Even so, I don't think the issue for perfectionist writers is really time. The perfectionist can't turn in a half-assed biology report, can't delegate: everything must be just so. We live with such intensity (I almost wrote "ferocity") that the intensity that should be hoarded for writing is depleted. We allow this activity to substitute for engaging in the true intensity of our writing. Perhaps we are afraid. Perhaps we hide in perfectionism, its safety. And we go about choosing our lives, day by day, year by hurrying year.
The answer to denying ourselves the time to write is not to provide ourselves excuses to do slipshod work but to be honest. Each of us must examine our lives and ourselves (and preferably in writing!) to find our fears and make the choices that will lead us to the courage to change our ways.
We may decide to stop and smell the roses. It's trite, it's clichéd, it's simplistic. Nevertheless, what doesn't have to be done perfectly, what truly could ease us, is what we put aside to accomplish everything else. But we can choose not to. Sometimes the rose will smell like the desert after rain, sometimes like a lover's hair. Sometimes, many times, it will smell like paper. The choice to be attentive to the person or page before us places us right in the present.
Attentiveness won't stop time, but it lets us live it more deeply. Marvel writes: "though we cannot make our sun/Stand still, yet we will make him run." With these lines, we are back to intensity: now not the frantic, frustrated variety, but a quiet, aware wakefulness. And I believe that this is the perfection we perfectionists must strive for, a perfection that writing allows in its full-bodied, fully-lived return to the moments of our lives.
This along with our awareness of what Marvell calls time's slow-jawed power may in the end be the very thing that will force us to hole up and write.
Most truly yours,
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