Tag Archives: memoir

A good prompt is hard to find

This post continues with Week 4 in a series of posts on topics that relate to writer’s residencies. See also Week 1: Preparing, Week 2: Make Writing Exercises Work for You, and Week 3: In Defense of Obstinacy. I started at Week 1 and am counting up.

drawing of a turkey running away from Thanksgiving

Now that’s creativity! CC image “Turkey Escape” via Mark Ahlness on Flickr. Some rights reserved.

Ever come across writing exercises or suggestions online, and roll your eyes?

If you’ve spent any time working through your own blocks, chances are you’ve acquainted yourself with writing resources and how-to guides, and found any number of writing prompts. They usually fall into one of two categories: a) I’ve read/done this before; and b) what am I, five?

Maybe that second one’s just me. I can get snarky when I’m feeling stuck.

The third category, c) suggestions that we haven’t seen before and that do stimulate our curiosity, are less common. Copy them down and save them somewhere, because they are GOLD.

I was recently reminded how hard good writing prompts are to find, when I started my writing exercise experiment two weeks ago (you can find more info under Week 2). In fact, the process was so annoying that I inadvertently came up with some of my own prompts.

I didn’t set out to write a how-to, a list, or to be helpful to anyone beyond myself, frankly… but there it is. If you have seen any of these elsewhere, have mercy on a writer, and keep me in the dark.

Keep your writing prompts handy

A major lesson I learned is to always have a store of writing prompts, techniques, and suggestions at the ready. When I started my first day of the writing exercise experiment, I ran into a problem. The problem — this should surprise exactly no one, and sadly did surprise me — was that I needed writing exercises to start with. I’d been under the impression that I had a few lined up, which turned out to be wrong.

Looking for writing exercises threatened to derail the experiment before I was able to start. I had set limits on my time and word count for the exercises knowing how easily I slide down the rabbit-hole and lose sight of the original goal. Right out of the gate, I proved myself and my precautions right.

Well, the horse was out of the barn. That first day, I settled for a thematic starting point as quickly as I could. The second day, I allowed myself to put together a short list, based on ideas I found from other writing sources. Emphasis on short. The second week, I allowed myself to devise my own prompts.

Super bonus points: I can use these newly-invented prompts for the second fortnight of writing exercises. Ha!

My primary focus was on exercises that allowed me to get to know my main characters. You could set up your prompts to help develop setting, theme, or another facet of craft. Some of my questions form a kind of “interview” with the characters; others give me alternate ways of playing with the material. I hope some may be useful to you.

Writing exercise prompts for characters

      1. Food. We can take this theme many different ways. I have a scene in a hospital, after a child is born, and I described the meal there. The neat result of this was the way my notes illuminated the setting, AND added to my understanding of the character.
      2. Nightmares. I’ve seen plenty of writing exercise suggestions that ask us to pursue our/our characters hopes, goals, and dreams, and I thought this would be much more fun. What terrifies your character? What does your character react to with disgust, revulsion, or otherwise find awful beyond words? Do they experience literal nightmares? What about?
      3. Shame. What was your character’s most embarrassing experience?
      4. Music. As with food, this can be taken in different directions. What is your character’s favorite music (if any)? What instrument would your character play? What if they played a different instrument? What if they were an instrument?

I also messed with techniques, because I like to jog myself out of my stylistic ruts.

Techniques to change up your writing exercises

      1. Reveal the answers to any of the above (or other) questions using dialogue alone. No descriptors or actions, though tags (he said, she said) are allowed.
      2. Write (or re-write) a scene as a play or screenplay (dialogue and stage directions). This is useful if you find yourself stuck creating action in the narrative.
      3. Your character is being interviewed for the local newspaper. Write the article that results from that interview.
      4. Your character has won an award. What for? Describe the presentation/acceptance of the award.
      5. Write about your character as though they were the opposite sex. To make this extra difficult, choose one scene where they MUST be female or male (because we are confined by biological realities), and change the gender. Don’t just switch pronouns! Be honest with this and you may weirdly discover a whole other character (not to mention plot)!

My new problem is that now that I’ve gotten started on this meta-writing path, I’m in danger of developing so much new material, I already want to pretend the revision process does not exist.

What is your favorite way to stoke the creative fires?

Squozen language — fun stuff our family says

This recipe for canning salsa* will forever live in my heart for its use of the word, “squozen.”

baby squirrel holding onto the fingers of a hand

You must be squozen! — CC image “Charlie the hugger” courtesy of novocainstain on Flickr. Some rights reserved.

“Squozen” is a family word. As in my aunt announcing to me or my brothers or cousins, “You must be squozen.” A term of endearment and affection.

My family has also been known to “shniggle,” to drive each other crazy by “gussifying” (“please stop gussifying!”), and to discuss “buppos” in public.

Nephews and brothers must be liberally “goosed” by an authority figure, and references to anthropopagi are regularly made in conversation. “Do not sit at the table like one of the anthropopagi, the men whose heads do grow beneath their shoulders,” my father liked to intone, as we sat at the dinner table.

One of many reasons to be glad to be part of the clan.

Ours is of course not the only family to have family-specific terminology for things. I do think, however, that being a bilingual family has added a special flavor to our adaptations on language. Anyone can snuggle, after all, but not everyone abuses German in English by shniggling.

snippet of recipe text for salsa

Courtesy of PickYourOwn.org

As a group, we have been caught punning nearly constantly, and having our way with various sayings. “Like water off a duck’s foot!” has become standard, as has “open foot, insert mouth…” The dog is a “hairy beast” while minds are terrible things to lose. (All true, by the way)

Sometimes I use family terminology in a non-family environment. Occasionally, hearers will look confused. Other times, they congratulate me on my language creativity. I smile and accept their admiration, not bothering to set them straight.

The family dog is now multi-lingual, being fluent in Dog, as well as proficient with English, German, and family-speak (though sometimes he pretends he doesn’t know what we are talking about). He is particularly attentive when we illustrate points with food, or with small kittens. So far, he has not attempted to eat the kittens.


What are some fun words your family or friends use or have invented?

*yes, I did indeed make that salsa. Many tomatoes were squozen, and the result was delicious!

Busy Bee: Buzzing or Making Honey?

Writing about my writing is interfering with my writing. For that matter, I’m using writing to procrastinate from my writing. All this writing is really getting in the way of my writing.

Is this a case of having too many irons in the fire?

Or am I just buzzing loudly to cover up the fact I’m not actually producing anything (honey…yumm)?

Hard at work
image courtesy of freedigitalphotos.net

I’ve got reasons aplenty to call myself a busy bee lately. In the world of writing, I have two big ongoing projects of my own. I’ve had them for a while… that is, I conceived of them a while ago, and I’ve been using my deadlines like a slide, fun to visit and scoot down every so often. One of them is a fiction project. We’ve had quite the frenemy relationship. It started with love. We hung out together all the time. There was no other story I would rather have gotten to know. We shared secrets, hopes, dreams. Then things changed. The fiction did. Or maybe it was me. We didn’t know if we wanted to hang out together anymore. We didn’t recognize what the other had become. The atmosphere between us was tense, prickly. We didn’t know what to expect from the other. Now we periodically meet for coffee, but I never know in advance if the conversation is going to be civil. It’s hard to say what lies in the future.

The other is a memoir project that may also be a series of personal essays or creative nonfiction (it’s taking notes from the fiction project, which started as a novel idea, was reincarnated in the short story universe, and has been flirting with novella status since). I have great plans for that one. I’ve got the beginnings of some great material — provided (ironically, as we shall see) by my writing practice and some journal entries. Those plans include an outline (this is if it wants to be a memoir). That’s a good, concrete goal for a writer to have. Easy to measure success there. I’m sure I put it on the calendar no later than June.

I don’t have an outline yet.

In addition to the big projects, I’ve been keeping loose and limber by working on my journal and my writing practice. But last week I noticed something funny about those latter two items.

I was doing writing exercises to keep myself from having to buckle down and actually work on project A (the fiction project). This was actually inconvenient because there was a REAL deadline looming for that one: a competition submission deadline that I used as a motivator and benchmark. Apparently, it wasn’t motivating enough. Or, and this is more likely, I permitted myself to fail.

As for project B, the wannabe memoir, I found a new writing book about memoir and creative nonfiction at the bookstore, which I’ve allowed to lead me astray. How convenient that project B is a memoir project, possibly creative nonfiction! And how convenient that I can now read about memoir, rather than actually write one. It’s so informative!

This malarky has been going on for longer than the past week, but I only recently appreciated the humor in the situation.

The good stuff
image courtesy of freedigitalphotos.net

It’s tantamount to refusing to do my English homework because I’m too busy doing my math homework. Pffft! the fifth-grader in me says. I’m doing homework — you can’t accuse me of procrastinating! I’m getting stuff done over here! I can cross things off my list!

Problem is, it’s not the really important stuff.

I’m not making any honey, and that’s sad. I’m doing a lot of buzzing, and sometimes it’s hard to hear myself think above the drone.

I’ve got to be careful. There’s a difference between buzzing and honey.

Which is all to say, it should be clear by now that I’m using my writing to procrastinate from doing my writing, and the writing is really getting in the way of getting any writing done.