Writing Prompts

writing prompts

I recently attended a memoir writing retreat at La Finca in Vieques, Puerto Rico, where eleven of us gathered in the Caribbean breeze each morning to discuss work submitted by two separate participants. But before we plunged into the nitty-gritty of structure, voice, character development, and so on, we warmed up our brains each morning by spending fifteen minutes responding to a writing prompt provided by Elizabeth Cohen, award winning writer, poet, memoirist, journalist, steadfast writing mentor, and Assistant Professor of English at SUNY Plattsburgh.

I like writing prompts, timed prompts; they drive me to write fast, to keep the pen moving, to not fret over whatever it is I’m writing about. Prompts force me to let it all out, to express what I otherwise would second-guess expressing. One of my favorite prompts Elizabeth offered us came from a Mary Oliver poem, “The Summer Day.” In the poem she says, “I don’t know exactly what a prayer is.” The prompt: “What is a prayer?”

Maybe I wasn’t paying close enough attention to what Elizabeth asked us to respond to, because I heard her say this: “What does it mean to pray.” But, hey, that’s the beauty of prompts; they leave room for choice. So here’s what I wrote:

To be still and quiet is to pray. To walk barefoot in the grass, and feel each blade between the toes. To close your eyes against the day’s glare and turn inside yourself and breath out any knots and tangles. To breath in the memory of being carefree, of doing water angels and skipping stones on a midnight lake. To pray is to sing, to write, to call forward that which makes you still, still enough to listen to the sounds you cannot hear. It’s to hold close to you the heartbeat of what matters most to you. To pray is to remember that you are not alone, and that candy breezes have the capacity to carry you closer and closer toward the inside of you, deep into the uterine center of you. To pray is to imagine, to feel, to hold a butterfly in the palm of our hand.

I’d love to hear from others what it means to you to pray. (or if you’re good at paying attention, “What is a prayer?”) What other mind-limbering prompts do you have to share?

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Writing Dialogue

Do you fret over writing dialogue? Do you use dialogue as a filler because you’re not sure where to go next on the page? Well, I’m here to offer some suggestions, that is, on behalf of Rita Zoe Chin, the author of Let the Tornado Come, a brilliantly rendered memoir about her adult onset panic disorder and how she galloped through the storm with unwavering resilience. I met Rita during her writing craft session, “Essentials of Dialogue,” at this year’s Muse and Marketplace in Boston. Since most of us shiver when we hear “rules,” I’m here to assure you that her guidelines are just that, guidelines, though worthy ones I vote for keeping close by on your writing desk.

First and foremost, think of dialogue as having a purpose. Does it advance the narrative, develop the characters, highlight a relationship? When writing the earlier drafts of my memoir, I used to believe I had to get it exact: every word my mother or sister or brother said twelve years earlier. Well, we all know that memories are slippery at best, and what we remember from a dozen years ago may as well be categorized as fiction. When talking about memoir, the best we can do is get it as close to the truth as possible. That said, you don’t need to include every “um,” “uh,” and “oh” on the page. If anything, they’re distracting to readers. Imagine reading this: “Um, I don’t know. Oh, I see. Uh, let me think about that. And, um, I have a story to tell you, um, do you want to hear it?” No. Similarly, salutations like “Hello” and “Goodbye” are not needed. The same goes for nonessential pieces of information like what a character ate for lunch (I suppose if what the character ate moves the story forward in some way then it would be essential). As for accents, this is a tough one. They too can be distracting. And, believe it or not, adverbs do not make for good dialogue. Take a look at this example Rita shared: “She ripped off the wrapping paper and opened the box before he finished reading the gift tag on his. “I love it,” she said, happily.” It’s clear she is happy without having to say so, right? Then there are dialogue tags: I said, he said, she said. Our initial instinct may be to liven up these tags with more active verbs like “I uttered” or “He bellowed.” But, as Rita noted, “let the dialogue do the work.” In other words, get rid of the voice of the narrator. Look at it in the way Rita suggested: “Dialogue tags are there simply to guide us.”

There’s more, but for now, I’ll leave you with a savory tip from Rita: Listen closely to conversations among others: expression, tone, word choice, etc. Pay attention to dialogue when reading, when watching a movie or a play. Read your own dialogue out loud, marking words you stumble over. Maybe there are words unintentionally repeated. And remember: sometimes silence on the page says much more than dialogue.

Hope this helps!

 

 

 

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Under the Gum Tree: Interview with Author Melissa Cronin

under_the _gum_tree_interview

If you haven’t had the opportunity to read my personal essay, “Right Foot, Left Foot,” in issue 17 of Under the Gum Tree, below is an excerpt of my interview with the publisher, discussing the essay, and all its nuances.

Q. Throughout your piece, you allude to the accident that rendered you handicapped. A man named George Russel Weller drove his car into a crowd of people in Santa Monica, allegedly mistaking the gas pedal for the brake. Could you describe the accident in terms of how it affected you? How did it change the way you saw the world and other people?

A. The accident affected me in many ways—physically, psychologically, mentally. Before the accident, I had worked as a neonatal intensive care nurse, but my physical injuries prevented me from returning to that kind of setting: fast paced and physically and mentally demanding.

I was not a writer before the accident; the accident made me a writer. Though the accident was tragic—people died and many more were injured—it offered me an opportunity to see and interact with the world in a much different way. With my nursing career a chimera of my past, I had to figure out what I was going to do with my life. I had kept a journal after the accident, and, in 2009, when my husband returned to school (we married in 2004), I took a writing/research class with him. It inspired me to write. The teacher inspired me. I asked her to work with me as a writing mentor, and, from there, my writing took off. I write every day (or almost every day). Writing has spurred me to be more aware of my surroundings: a falling leaf, a flitting bird, lovers kissing in the park. And I am more open to listening to others share their struggles, whether they are physical, mental, or emotional in nature. Writing human-interest stories for my local newspaper allows me to interact with my neighbors and the broader community. It impels me to listen closely, to learn, to experience much more than my microscopic world.

Q. You used the mantra “right foot, left foot” as both a means of learning how to walk again as well as the title of your piece. Looking at what the phrase meant to you then and today, has its significance changed for you? Do you think the meaning of things can truly change for people, or are these associations stagnant?

A. I do not believe the meaning of “right foot, left foot” has changed for me. I am always, figuratively and literally, putting my right foot forward then my left (or vice versa). Whether I am out for a walk, climbing the stairwell, crafting an essay, revising my memoir … I am placing one foot forward then the other. That’s how I move ahead—one step at a time. Sometimes the steps are daunting ones, like when I returned to school at age forty-three. Eek! That was scary!

Yes, I do think the meaning of things can change for people. We grow up (or not), we meet new people, we face expected, and unexpected, challenges; the world changes and forces us to adapt. In that way, the meaning of things change for people.

The entire interview, along with other creatives, is now live on the magazine’s website.

 

Thank you, Janna Marlies Maron, Robin Martin, and the rest of the staff at UTGT for giving me the opportunity to share my story “without shame.”

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“Failure breeds success”

failure_breeds_success

Do you ever berate yourself for failing, tell yourself that you should quite while you’re ahead? Has your writing been rejected by literary journals, magazines, and newspapers time and again ? If you’re a writer, you know what I’m talking about. Yes, we get rejected, a lot. Failure is inevitable. It’s inevitable for painters, dancers, musicians, for all creators. Writer, author, and inspirational speaker, Elizabeth Gilbert, failed – for six years she “failed at getting published.” She received rejection letters in the mail, every day.

Are you wondering where I’m going with this failure thread? Keep reading. As Elizabeth says in her Ted Talk, “Success, failure, and the drive to keep creating,” failure breeds success.”

How so? Elizabeth’s story is the answer:

Nearly a decade ago, when readers from all over devoured her memoir, Eat, Pray, Love, she became an instant success. But with that success, she says, came the hard part: “How in the world I was ever going to write a book again that would ever please anybody.”

You may not be a writer, but does this sentiment sound familiar? You’ve succeeded at something: maybe a record label has finally recognized your music. Or you’ve been accepted into an artist colony after applying countless times. Now that you’ve made it, you ask yourself, What’s next? This isn’t enough. I need to do more. I need to keep pleasing my partner, my parents, my grandparents, my children, my pet goldfish.

So, even if we succeeded, we feel like we’ve failed, because we burden ourselves with having to do better and better, all the time, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. But if we believe we can’t keep succeeding, we may seriously consider giving up, which is what Elizabeth considered after publishing her memoir. It’s all in the mind, really. That we can all agree upon, right? We see things in black and white, good or bad. Success equals good; failure equals bad. (Whoever came up with “good” and “bad” should be … Well, I’ll leave it at that.) Of course, the unending praise bestowed on us when we succeed boosts our egos, until we realize that we need to do more, do better, that this, whatever it is, is not enough. Similarly, the lack of recognition when we fail buries our confidence. Either way, when it comes to good versus bad, Elizabeth cautions us: “There’s a real equal danger in both cases of getting lost out there in the hinterlands of the psyche.”

To stop ourselves from second-guessing ourselves, we need to find a way to forge ahead, to fire-up our inspiration. For Elizabeth, she found that inspiration from past life lessons: the constant rejections she received in the mail each day. Rather than quitting though, she found her way back: “I’m going home,” she says. Not home in the literal sense; home in the artistic sense. Writing was, is, her home. Because writing is what she loves, she returns to it again and again. She went back home after the book she wrote in follow-up to Eat, Pray, Love failed. And she keeps going home.

But how do we find our way back home? Here’s a hint from Elizabeth: “Your home is whatever in this world you love more than you love yourself.”

 

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National Novel Writing Month

nanowrimo

I wrote a novel in thirty days last November. Yes, you read that correctly. Thirty days. How did I do it? The drive to write, determination, and encouragement – from family, friends, and the staff at nanowrimo.

Nanowrimo, or National Novel Writing Month, begins every year on November 1, when participants begin working toward the goal of completing a fifty-thousand-word novel by midnight on November 30. Anyone can participate, from novice to veteran writers. All you need to do is sign up, create your novel on the website, and, of course, write at least sixteen hundred and sixty-seven words a day.

So what motivated me to spend a month doing little else but write? First, I already had an idea for a novel in mind, and had been thinking about starting it, but kept telling myself I’d get to it later, maybe next year. In September, two months before the kick-off of nanowrimo, my stepdaughter said, “Melissa, do it; you can do it.” Her enthusiasm was contagious. Why not? I thought – after spending the spring and summer revising my memoir, I had put it aside, with plans to read through and revise it, yet again, starting in December. So, what better time than November, when darkness presses down on the light, to push back against the sluggish side-effect of winter’s gloom, and write the first draft of my novel?

How did I begin? I began before the beginning – a lot of research, an outline, a diagram of the novel’s arc, flashcards jotted with brief descriptions of each chapter, character sketches – physical descriptors and clothing styles, family and work history, hobbies, dreams, favorite foods, habits, living situations, and strengths and weaknesses. I assigned each character a name that conjured his or her unique temperament, and downloaded from the Internet images that matched each character’s personality. I created living, breathing, heart-beating human beings, and listened to the nuances of each of their voices in my head. I moved into their lives, their minds, their every thought. I did all of this before typing word one.

Though I started preparing two months in advance of the kick-off of nanowrimo, and felt confident about the trajectory of my story, when I finally sat my butt in the chair to type the first sentence, the uninvited judge living in my head spoke mightily. And there were days when my brain churned on sloth speed and I struggled to reach the minimum daily goal of sixteen hundred and sixty-seven words. But I countered the judge’s arguments, re-filled my brain’s glucose tank with fun snacks (mostly dark chocolate), and gave myself pep talks: “Keep typing, keep writing, keep the characters alive and breathing.” Of course, there’s something to be said for seeing progress, in numbers. That’s partly how nanowrimo kept me going: Each day I downloaded what I had written on the website and, voilà, the link calculated exactly how many words I had written, how many words I had left to write, and my average word count per day. More than the word count, the unraveling of the story sustained me. By November 28, I had fifty thousand words. I was ahead of schedule! On November 30, I typed my last sentence. Total word count: fifty-three thousand nine hundred fifty-nine words.

Though it’s only January, and November is three seasons in the future, if you’re thinking about writing a novel, and want to sign up for nanowrimo next year, it’s not too soon to start thinking about your story now: plot, arc, theme, characters.  Though some people may have the brainpower and creative heft to dive into nanowrimo without a life jacket, I vote for having one nearby, whether it’s an outline, a diagram, or both. And getting your work onto the page will boost your confidence, deliver a lasting high, encourage you to say, “Yes, I can do it!”

Writing paraphernalia and conditions I recommend: Note cards, corkboard, your favorite pen, pencils, notebook, sticky notes, drawing paper, a quiet space, quotes from writers that inspire you, your favorite chocolates or other snacks, plenty of water, tea/coffee, comfy clothing, and a happy light for those who live in locations like Vermont, where the sun goes on sabbatical starting in November.

Good-luck!

 

 

 

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Medical Literary Messenger

I’m happy to share with you that my essay, “A Faded Scar with Palpable Edges,” is now available to read in The Medical Literary Messenger, a web-based journal associated with Virginia Commonwealth University School of Medicine, and whose aim is “to promote humanism and the healing arts through prose, poetry, and photography.” The essay is about my struggle to overcome Anorexia Nervosa, an eating disorder affecting between one and five percent of female adolescents and young girls. The deeply contemplative and inspiring creative works published in the journal can’t help but make one pause to reflect on health, illness, and the human condition. So, while I hope you take a moment to read my essay, I also encourage you to read, and view, the other “voice[s] for the healing arts (Medical Literary Messenger).”

“A Faded Scar with Palpable Edges” was previously published in Humanthology, website devoted to real life chronicles connecting writers and readers to causes they embrace. Though I’m sad to share that Humanthology is no longer in publication, you can still access my essay, and others, on the website.

 

 

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