The Time in Between

Another effective writing exercise is to consider two photographs taken at different times (decades apart, or a few minutes) or your own mental images of yourself or another.

Write a few words to orient yourself with each image – who, when, where. Add a word or two about the feeling or emotion most prominent when you think of each image.

Now spend a few minutes writing about the time between the images. What changed for the person in the image?

Go deeper: Return to the images a few more times over several days or weeks. Guaranteed, you’ll come up with more to say, questions you’d like to ask (or wish you could ask). Write about that.

How To Be

Writing a mini-instruction manual (really, just a paragraph) about How To Be a particular person is a quick way to remind yourself of all sorts of stories you can tell. For each line of your “recipe” to be this person, you’re drawing on your experience and memory. Those are the stories.

For instance, I could tell you that my mom is from Indiana, she’s 5’3”, she likes to read, she’s kind, she eats healthy food, she loves me. And maybe, if one of those things resonated with you, you might want to meet her.

Or I could think a bit more about each of those points, and give you a recipe that shows how my mom is unique. Bingo. Instantly, she’s a more interesting person. Fiction writers use this exercise all the time to see what their imaginations “know” about a character and to help predict how that character might act. I think it’s just as much fun to do with real people.

How To Be Sandy - Be born in a small town in Indiana and be both glad that your childhood was spent there, and glad that you left as a young adult. Be small, about 5’3” and neat and modest. Smile often, except when you are reading; when reading have a relaxed yet intent expression. Be kind. Be critical of ideas, but not of people. Rarely eat fast food, but once or twice each year or so, really, really enjoy a Big Mac. Interrupt frequently, and fail to notice that this annoys people. Love your family unconditionally.

 

Story Starters

And here are some writing prompts I use with my students. They also make good conversations starters if things get dull at parties!

Writing Your Own Stories:
-  write about someone or something you loved with all your heart at age 10 –  or 16, 38, 67.
-  tell about a time you moved from one place to another. What did you miss? What did you like/dislike about the new place?
-  write about a trip you took. Did it meet, or fail to meet your expectation?
-  is there something you wanted but never got? What filled that space?
- write about your jobs in the order you held them, and how you learned what you needed to know.

Tell about your best birthday gift.
Who was your favorite relative when you were 10 years old?
What would you ask your grandmother if you could?
Tell about a family food or meal that you either like or dislike.
What is the most significant weather event you can remember?
Tell about the worst haircut you ever had.
Who was your best friend as a child?
What’s the naughtiest thing you did as a child?
What amazes you most about the year 2014?
Who was your favorite teacher?
What do you remember about learning to swim or ride a bike?
How old were you when you left home? Where did you go?
Tell about your ideal Sunday afternoon.
What skill do you wish you had learned better?
Did you have siblings or cousins to play with?

Story Starters for Writing About Family Members:

It’s OKAY – more than okay – to start with questions. That may be all you really have. Consider any documentation you have about a particular person – diaries, letters, photos, charts, notes. What’s missing? What would you ask that person if you could? What do you wonder about? Know that it’s also okay if you can’t find answers. Just asking the questions connects your life to theirs, and connects their story to your story.

Try to imagine your relative in the year 2014 —  what would be most surprising to him or her? Why do you think so?

Did the person emigrate from another country? Another city or state? Why? What did they miss about their old home? What did they like and dislike about their new home?

Who left for, came home from or stayed home from a war? What did this mean to family members?

Think of an object you associate with this person, and describe it in detail. What does it say about the person?

What was their first job? Their last? What happened in between and why?

How old were they when they left home? Where did they go? Why?

Tell about a vacation or trip they took.

Tell about a family food or meal that you either like or dislike. What do you know about the family members who started this food tradition?

Who in your family tells the funniest jokes?

What did an ideal Sunday afternoon look like?

 

 

 

 

 

List Poems

Valentine’s Day approaching is a good time to tell you about one of the easiest and most popular writing exercises I do with students.

1.  At the top of a blank page, write the name of the person you’re writing about, yourself or another.
2.  Freewrite for 2-3 minutes, jotting down every word, phrase, thought, or image that comes to you about this person. Write as quickly and as much as you can; editing comes later.
3.  End with an object, something this person holds in their hand or pocket. (Because this can give you a clue to writing more about this person later.)
4.  Read through what you’ve written, circling or noting any recurring themes. Cross out anything you don’t want to keep.
5. You have a List Poem, a snapshot or sketch of the essential characteristics (as seen by you!) of a particular person. Now, you can
A) Use this to write a story.
B) Copy your edited poem in your best handwriting, one ides or phrase per line, and frame it along with a photo of the person.

Variations:
Love Poem — in step 2, list everything you love about the person. Step 3, end with I love you because…

Think about everything that scares this person when you are freewriting in Step 2.

Peeing on our monsters.

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Wonderful piece from 1/1/2014 on NPR’s All Things Considered about editing your life stories — and the health benefits thereof.  You know which stories we’re talking about, the ones that run in our head and tell us who we are and how we should move through the world. Turns out we can edit the stories we tell ourselves — in effect,we can pee on our monsters.  A little crude (sorry, Mom) but what a simple and effective idea.

The radio interview is well worth listening to, and James Pennebaker’s writing prompts are worth trying. I’ve followed Pennebaker’s work at the University of Texas on healing through writing, and incorporate some of his ideas into my workshops and classes.

Improving our mental health with our life stories seems like a good thing to consider in this very cold early January. I’m looking forward to exploring this with my writing students this year.

Join us at The Blessing House on Saturday, January 11.

NotebookPencil

Stephanie Friant has invited me to teach a writing workshop at the Blessing House in Victoria, Minnesota this coming Saturday, from 9 am to Noon. We’ll be talking about writing your own life story, or family stories, and we’ll do some fast and fun writing exercises together so everyone has a head start. The Blessing House is a peaceful and contemplative place to enjoy a winter day — and Saturday may even be sort of warm.

I met Stephanie last summer, and quickly discovered that we share an interest in spiritual writing, and in spirituality as a journey. She’s a thoughtful and humble writer – visit her blog when you’re looking for food for thought, and she’ll point you in all sorts of interesting directions.

Writing About the Dead

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Mt. Zion Cemetery, Georgetown

Mt. Zion Cemetery, Georgetown

A colleague from the Association of Personal Historians forwarded a link to Ken Budd’s 11/20/13 piece in the NYTimes about the choices he made in writing about his deceased father. Budd quotes C.S. Lewis in “A Grief Observed” that mourning those we’ve lost makes “the dead far more dead.” His essay describes why he disagrees with Lewis, and how he came to terms with writing about his father in a way he knew his father would not have liked.

I’m constantly reminding my memoir students that they can only tell their own stories, can write about others’ lives only from the perspective of their own. I explain that telling their truest story, with integrity and love, is the only armor they’ll need when family members say, “That’s not the way it happened!” I remind them that someone, some time, will inevitably challenge their memories, and their right to record those memories. And I say they should do it anyway.

When we write memoir, we’re writing more about our understanding of the events than about the events themselves. We strive for accuracy and fairness, and we hope for the best. No one writing about their own life ever gets it all down, every little detail exactly right. We edit and filter without knowing it, simply by going about our days in the ways we’re accustomed to. If that’s the case with our own stories, how can we hope to capture the entirety of anyone else’s story? The point, I think, is to record something, some small thing, about any particular life.

But the C.S. Lewis quote reminded me of a workshop exercise at the APH conference last month where a colleague from Argentina, Eduardo, said something I’ve been contemplating ever since. Eduardo said that if we don’t remember and talk about those we’ve known after they are gone, it’s as if they have died twice: once physically, and again in memory when those who knew and remembered them are gone. He worried that his English wasn’t good enough to express this thought, but he conveyed it beautifully.

The troubling thing, of course, and the point of Ken Budd’s article, is that we can only tell another person’s story through the filter of our own story. It’s not entirely fair, or entirely accurate, to tell anyone’s story this way, especially when they are gone and have no way to correct the record, or contribute to the story. Memoirists struggle with this mightily. We should struggle with this, and pay careful attention to it, in the same way we should be paying attention to the people alive all around us.

That’s the deal, you know. Paying attention to how we affect the lives of others, and how their lives affect ours, is the price we pay for the privilege of being alive on Earth with other humans. Telling stories is how we make sense of that privilege.

I’m a guest at Sisters Under the Trees.

Stephanie Friant of Sisters Under the Trees asked me to write a post this week about why stories matter.  Although I have serious doubts about religion, I’ve come to admire Stephanie’s approach to spiritual writing — she’s all about the journey, as am I.

I’m looking forward to talking next week with the MotherCare group that Stephanie has organized at Mt.Calvary in Excelsior — where my four (all grown up) kids went to preschool. What fun to visit with a new generation of moms. NotebookPencilI think I was invited to share something about teaching, but I expect I’ll learn quite a bit myself…

 

Oradour again.

Ghosts of War - Oosterbeek Airborne museum; The eternal curator

I’ve written about Oradour-sur-Glane, the small town in France burned by the Nazis in 1944, and my 2010 visit there with my French friend, Nathalie.

Oradour is in the news this week as German President Joachim Gauck joined M. Hollande and an 88-year-old survivor of the massacre. President Gauck said he accepted the invitation with “gratitude and humility” but hoped to remind his French hosts that ”the Germany that I have the honour of representing is a different Germany from the one that haunts their memories”.

To say that the atmosphere at Oradour is haunted is to understate by a million-fold what happened there on June 10, 1944, and before that, and since then. The air itself holds atoms of the lives lived in the village, of the attackers, of those who survived, of those who posted plaques, of those who visit. Layers and layers, decades of haunting. It’s hard to imagine that it will ever not be haunted.

We need that though, don’t we? Places that demand we remember, that we remind each other of what happened, and why. Given the length of human history, and the history of humans, there are many more of these places than we acknowledge.

Jo Teeuwisse’s Ghosts of History project places WWII photos inside modern photos of the same locales. In some photos, people from the 1940s look at people from 2012.

Except, of course, they don’t really see each other. View Ms. Teeuwisse’s entire collection here.

 

 

Ordinary grace.

My book club read Ordinary Grace this month, by Minnesota’s own William Kent Krueger. The author voices the opening pages in this trailer, quoting Aeschylus: “He who learns must suffer. And even in our sleep, pain – which cannot forget – falls drop by drop upon the heart, until, in our own despair, against our will, comes wisdom through the awful grace of God.”

It’s a beautiful book, beautifully written, its characters demonstrating grace through their actions page by page. Sometimes, through their choices not to act. We spent some time talking about the difference between “ordinary” grace and “awful” grace — the kind of grace that is bestowed upon us versus the grace we earn through endurance, by living a life grounded in the realities of  relationship and circumstance.

No conclusions drawn; I’m still thinking. The hallmark of a really good book.