Additional Exercises for Writing Creative Nonfiction Help (page 3)
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,
Addressing a specific person who has ignited a need in you to examine an issue or reveal a passion can help you write creative nonfiction in the traditional form of an open letter.
When have your emotions and thinking been hooked by someone else's difficulty or questions? Write down a list from the past or the present. Then try addressing a letter, one you don't necessarily have to intend on sending, to this person. In it, tell the person what most people might say are reasons for the difficulty they experienced or are experiencing. Tell them why this wisdom doesn't work for you and the ways you share the difficulty.
Sharing quotes from a piece of writing you admire or an anecdote about something that has stayed with you for years will help you in your search for the truly wise words from which you and your readers will benefit. When you write for someone in particular out of a desire to illuminate and explore a specific issue, you will find much to say and to sculpt into a strong personal essay.
Journal Writing as Finished Creative Nonfiction-- Three Days and Three Nights
In his book The Heart Aroused: Poetry and the Preservation of the Soul in Corporate America, poet David Whyte talks about the mythic significance of the phrase "three days and three nights" in biblical stories. He says it means the time it takes for an initiation and may have derived from the fact that each month the moon is gone for three days. He writes, "In the course of a human life we get to know these dark phases of existence quite well. Bereavement and rejection, loss of friends, family and familiar way-signs."
You can write about much in your life by keeping a journal with dated entries. It is best if there is something in the background that you are working on emotionally—some decision that has to be made, for instance, or something that you regret that you are exploring on the page, or even the need to come to understanding about something in your life. The entries can vary—some can be short, some long; some can be poems, some quotes, some letters, some passages that are developed using the variety of rhetorical forms. This writing in fragments, but ordered by the chronology of the dates of the entries, will add up to a whole; you will have written your way into an initiation that is necessary for self-growth.
Here's one way to begin such a journal-style piece of creative nonfiction writing:
First, articulate something problematic for you: "Do I (or did I when she was alive) spend enough time with my mother (or father, grandparents, friend)?" "Can I do or could I have done anything about someone else's loneliness or distress or inability to accomplish a goal?" "How could I have told someone something he or she didn't want to hear?"
Think of a place you can describe well, either by going there or imagining going there. The place you choose might be quirky, like a busy corner in your town or in front of a school you attended, or at the kitchen sink or by a particular plant in your garden.
After deciding on the place, make a date with yourself to write from this place three times, at different times in the same day, or on different days over a week or even a month, each time keeping your question or problematic situation in your mind and heart. Use the place you have decided upon as a title for the journal entries: "At the Corner of Venice and Motor," "I Swing Through the Green Light and Think of You," "At This Dining-Room Table."
Each time you write, title the particular entry by date and the part of the day in which you are writing or with a descriptive phrase: "Afternoon, July 30" or "The Day That Makes It Leap Year." As you prepare to write, keep your question in mind, though you won't be writing directly in answer to it. As you begin each of your entries, describe what you see just then in the environment you inhabit or imagine you inhabit. Close attention to the environment will provide you with something to consider and meditate on. You will easily associate to details in the problematic situation you are holding in the background. After you have written for three sessions, your writing will most likely have helped you travel toward resolution, acceptance, or resolve.
Getting Started on a Book-Length Memoir
If you want to write a book-length memoir, it is important to know why it will take 250 to 300 pages to tell your story. Where does the story start and where does it end? What does the reader learn along the way and by book's end? Is yours a story of getting through major life difficulties? Is it a story of coming of age? Is it a story of danger and the effects of that danger? Knowing what you are aiming to address on an inner level helps in keeping focus and engaging readers.
Memoirist Steven Winn, author of Come Back, Como, wrote a series for the San Francisco Chronicle about his family's adopted dog, Como. When readers' responses to these pieces about the author's haplessness in being able to befriend a dog beloved by his daughter and wife attracted the interest of an agent, Winn wrote a memoir. He had to decide what his book-length story would be about. He subtitled his book Winning the Heart of a Reluctant Dog and wrote his way toward understanding how his care and concern for the dog, despite the dog's disapproval of him, allowed him deeper understanding of his family members.
The hardest part of conceiving the story as a book-length memoir, Winn said when I interviewed him, was:
…freeing myself from the structure and narrative terms of self-contained newspaper pieces to think in longer, interlocking arcs. Shortly after I began writing the book, I put the Chronicle stories aside and never consulted them again.
My thinking and technique were slower to come around. One thing I had to learn, for example, was not to give away information too quickly. In a newspaper piece, you want readers to feel satisfied and fulfilled. In a book, you want readers to come to the end of a chapter and need to keep turning the pages. I had to re-conceive the story of our adventures with a difficult dog, to explore its meanings and implications in our family life and how they would play out in the narrative.
What you withhold can matter just as much as what you reveal. My book begins (after several different openings I tried) in the middle of a chase scene, with me in pursuit of the escape artist Como. After several attempts to lure and out-wit him on the street I was about to grab him. "I had him," I wrote of Como. "He was hypnotized. He didn't move, still didn't move. It was over. We were going home, with both my arms wrapped around him.
"That's how it would have happened, I'm convinced, if at that very, perversely well-timed moment a gardener's truck hadn't clattered across Eleventh on Ortega. It was the first sign of other life we'd encountered all morning. The noise of it startled us both—the snarly engine, banging suspension, and rakes and hoes rattling in back. I flinched. Como sprang free. I sprang after him and ran."
That scene takes place on Page 4 of Come Back, Como. The canine main character doesn't reappear until Page 55, and at that it takes a few more pages and another change of chapter to realize that this is the dog I was chasing back in the Prologue. What comes in between—an account of our daughter's childhood love of dogs, stories about the family dogs my wife and I had had growing up, and more—backlights the events with Como and adds weight and momentum to what unfolds in the chapters ahead. That could not have happened with a straight chronological approach. If you're paying close enough attention to your material, every story, every book will dictate the way it should be written.
Melissa Hart, author of Gringa: A Contradictory Girlhood, had published individual personal essays but then changed her mind about collecting them and publishing them as a memoir. Instead, she focused on creating a coming of age memoir. In an interview with me, which I posted on Writing It Real.com, she remarked:
I began Gringa as a series of related long memoiristic essays. I pitched them as a book to my agent, but she didn't feel that they worked as such. She suggested that I focus on writing a coming-of-age memoir exploring the theme of culture, which informed so many of the essays. Gringa was born of my meditations on a Spanish/ English flashcard I recalled from my mother's and my first Spanish class when I was nine. My agent was very wise in pulling out a theme and asking me to rewrite the manuscript as memoir.
Ask yourself what readers will learn about as they learn about your life: How cultural identity is formed? How trials and tribulations make one grow as a parent, husband, and person? About the geography of a part of the world? The pleasures and hardships of cultural diversity? The attributes necessary to face life after great loss? Next, ask yourself what you will be learning about and what you need to discover from writing a book: How to quell the uneasiness about your relationship with a family member? How to forgive yourself for some action, or how to face life without a particular person in your life? Create what could be a subtitle for your book. It should resonate with what you want to explore in your life experience by writing the book and information you want to share with readers: "A Hippy's Life Along the California Coast," "On Being the Only Jewish Family in a Small Town," "How I Dealt with Childhood Diabetes." Next, see if you can write a chapter outline—how many chapters do you envision in the book? What might the titles of the chapters be? Then see if you can write a preface to this book. Do you think you have identified your mission in writing this book? Do you see how you will approach your material?
More Ideas on Getting Started Writing Memoir
Rebecca McClanahan used interconnected personal essays to form her memoir The Riddle Song and Other Rememberings. In her instructional book Write Your Heart Out: Exploring & Expressing What Matters to You, she describes her process for writing her memoir's title essay, "The Riddle Song: A Twelve-Part Lullaby."
The process could certainly work for shaping the content and order of essays for an entire collection as well:
...I found I'd accumulated several short, unfinished pieces that seemed to be part of a larger whole. But I couldn't imagine what that whole might be. Rereading the pieces, I noticed certain images recurring: chickens, eggs, cherries, babies. I remembered a song I used to sing to my youngest sister; it contained these same images. The song had three stanzas, and each stanza had four lines. I wrote the first line of a sheet of paper: "I gave my love a cherry that had no stone." Then I searched through the unfinished pieces and found one that seemed to echo this theme. I wrote the next line on another sheet of paper, and continued the process until I began to see that the song's lyrics could provide the form I needed to tie the pieces together.
McClanahan offers another idea for how to look for uniting themes in your work:
"If I could write about only one subject (or person, place, event, obsession) what would it be?" By limiting your choice, you'll be forced to bypass peripheral or insignificant issues. It's often said that each writer has only one story to tell, and that she continues to tell this story again and again, in various ways. Ask yourself what story claims your first attention rights. Mark Doty, in his poem "My Tattoo," poses the question in another way:
… . what noun
would you want
spoken on your skin
your whole life through?
… Once you've chosen the subject you feel most passionate about, write about it for as long and deeply as you can without worrying about how others might respond. Remember, this is private writing; you don't need to be concerned with making your subject appealing to others. Your aim is to discover a subject so intriguing that you could come at it again and again, from any number of angles, and never exhaust its mysteries.
To find a perspective that will help you in writing either a both book-length narrative memoir or a collection of linked essays, think about a noun (an adjective will work, too) that could be your "guiding" tattoo. Use this word in a working title by adding a subtitle. Almost anything that pops into your head will work at this point: "Conscientious: A Daughter's Quest for Boundaries" or "Gardener: The Role That Brings Bounty."
If you choose to write interconnected essays, what could link these essays? If you choose to write a narrative story, what could organize your story? Try finding metaphor that seems accurate to your experience. As a conscientious daughter, I was permeable as wire mesh screening, I think, making my analogy. My metaphor includes not only wire mesh, something that fits into a window or door, but perhaps the dust and grime that accumulates in the corners between mesh and frame. These are all images that help me see what I will explore and how I might name sections of my book: wire mesh, frames, the grime in corners. When I think about being a gardener who creates bounty, the metaphor that occurs to me is the four elements: fire, air, earth, and water, to which I would add myself, the gardener, as a fifth element. I might write a narrative about how I became a gardener; it would move through the elements: the heat of grave loss, the spiritual quest for something thin as air, the grounding that planting provides to metabolize loss into spirit, the need for tears, who I am today.
The metaphor you choose will help you find the emotional occasion of your writing and help you decide on a unifying organization for your memoir in essays or, if it is a story, where the story will start and where it will end.
To Create Memoir from Fragments
In Thinking About Memoir, Abigail Thomas writes:
You can put together fragments that contain moments of crisis or confusion or hilarity, or moments that stick in the mind for no apparent reason, and while they may not follow chronology in terms of time, they may make an emotional progression...
Of her memoir Safekeeping, turned down by her agent who wanted her to write a novel about her experiences, Thomas writes:
My life didn't feel like a novel. It felt like a million moments. I didn't want to make anything fit together, I didn't want to make anything up. I didn't want it to make sense the way I understand a novel to make a kind of sense. I didn't want anywhere to hide. I didn't want to be able to duck. I wanted the shock of truth. I wanted moments that felt like body blows...
The poet William Stafford wrote a poem called, "Things I Learned This Week." He included things he observed by paying attention to what others generally don't take the time to see, such as on which side ants pass each other. He learned things from the newspaper such as topics famous people speak on. He learned from doing: how to unstick a door, for instance. And he learned about himself by noticing personal preferences.
You can also learn from dreams, from conversations with others, and from writings significant to you. Create a book title like "Things I've Learned So Far." List those things and where you learned them—make sure you have a variety of sources. You can learn by doing, going to lectures, reading, engaging with wise or incapable people. Perhaps you can make chapters titled by what you learned and arrange them chronologically, first lesson to final lesson. Then fill in the chapters with stories of how you learned what you learned. It can help to imagine your book as a long letter to someone you want to know about you and what you've gleaned.
Another way to organize a memoir is by listing the lessons of your life from small to large or by location or job or other activities. Name the lessons and write about how you learned each before ordering what you are writing in a logical way: east to west, kindergarten through college, or starter job to managerial position, for instance.
With these exercises under your belt, you have already created work that you can shape for publication in one of the most versatile and well-read genres of creative writing. Don't forget that exercises in the opening chapter on building your creative writing muscle, as well as exercises in both the poetry and fiction sections will be very useful. Creative nonfiction writers benefit from using lyrical sound and creating suspense, characters, and scenes. Experimenting with writing in parts without knowing ahead of time how what you create from exercises will knit into a whole will help you develop trust in your ability to make and discover meaning. Consulting Part Four on writing fiction will help you learn the art of managing time in writing, creating plot, subplot and conflict as well as creating scenes, strong characters (you and those you knew are characters in your creative nonfiction), and viable dialogue.
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