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. Or photos or mental images of places.

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

This is 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.