“Good writing is supposed to evoke sensation in the reader - not the fact that it is raining, but the feeling of being rained upon.” -           E. L. Doctorow

Memoir/Journaling Exercise:

How do you celebrate birthdays? Write about past traditions and current ones. Write about your feelings about past birthdays in general. Is there a specific birthday that stands out in your memory, (yours or someone elses)? Considering writing about that experience and keeping it “in scene” rather than describing it in past tense, and then reflect on birthdays. As you get older, does each birthday seem more significant or less? Why? Is there a Birthday wish or plan you hope to manifest someday? What is your dream birthday celebration. Is it something you believe you can make happen? Why or why not?

Are there any “birthdays” that you celebrate which are not honoring your actual birth, but the birth of a new you in some way? Does one birthday stand out in your memory, for good reasons or bad, and was that day a perfect example or metaphor for long standing issues or positive or negative elements you have had to deal with for much of your life? Write about it "in scene" to make the textural experience as well as the emotional experience real for your reader.

Memoir/Journaling Exercise:

What is your anchor? What do you trust and know and what can you come home to over and over?
Why does this thing, or act, or place or person, represent security to you? Why does it give you balance, or strength or a sense of ease? When did it come into your life – in one striking moment, or slowly over time. When did you recognize it as your anchor? Do you ever worry about losing it?

What other anchors do you have in life – perhaps now you might give thought to the kind of anchors that drag you under the surface and threaten to drown you? This can be a career, financial obligation, relationship, or habit. Do you resent living with this the anchor, or do you accept it? Perhaps your feelings are something in between. Did you lug the anchor around for years, then cut it loose? Are you forever tied to an anchor that slows you down, but you feel you are meant to be attached (such as a handicapped child or personality trait)? Are your anchors something that at one time served as a gift because it(they) helped keep you from floating away, but as time has gone on, you realize they’ve become a burden over time, or no longer necessary? Can you cut loose? Do you want to?

Write about anchors, both metaphorically and in reality.  You can choose to pursue either one of concepts concepts to write about, or use anchors as an overall theme, and put both examples into one thoughtful piece to examine a relationship in your life with others, yourself, or the world at large.

Memoir/Journaling Exercise:

Write about food. Select one specific memory of a food, or a meal that stands out in your thoughts. Write about the textural experience of preparing or consuming this meal “in scene”. Who shared the meal? What was served? What was the attitude and atmosphere of the table? How was it made? What was the intention behind the meal – celebratory, nurturing, obligatory, or something else? Why is this meal memorable? Do you still eat this food, or prepare this kind of meal (such as a holiday meal filled with favorite traditions)?

Consider preparing the meal again now. Why would you do that? Perhaps to relive the memory, or to replace the memory with something better to “rewire” you mind regarding how you feel about that meal.

Consider the juxtaposition of the same meal served at different times in your life as a way of communicating thoughtful commentary on your life.

Memoir/Journaling Exercise:

Write about scars, those you have or have given others. Try to begin with a physical scar, such as a faded spot on your hand where you once cut it. What were the circumstances that day causing the injury? Can you write about it “in scene”, with all the texture, emotion, and feeling involved? Does the scar serve as a reminder of something you won’t do again, or perhaps it provokes a memory of a moment in time (such as scar on your knee from the day you learned to ride a bike with your big brother devoted and encouraging running alongside you for miles.) Perhaps this is a scar from an operation, which can be a gateway into thoughts of life, health or just how delicate life can be.

Does the physical scar serve as a reminder of perhaps a deeper scar inside? Write about that.  What scars do you have that the outside world will never see, and how do you maneuver through your days lugging them with you? Explore the possibility of blending the physical with the emotional scaring you carry with you every day.

Or: What about scars you have caused others, which may be physical (the day you accidentally knocked  your little brother down the stairs) or emotional (the day you purposely knocked your brother down the stairs.)  Do you regret the scars you have caused others, or feel it was inevitable and not your fault? What about those harsh actions others did to you that you just can’t get past? Do you feel their actions were intentional, or perhaps they had no clue they were hurting you so badly.

Scars are real, but can also be a strong metaphor for the human condition and how we handle the complex nature of life.

A few writing prompts/exercises from our classes to spur inspiration . . .

Hands - Writing exercise for memoir and fiction

Write about hands as the gateway into reflection on a character or experience. Hands tell a great deal about people. Emotion and history can be revealed when describing hands. Imagine staring at hands that are soft, with highly groomed nails and a ring worth ten times anything you ever wore if they belong to the spoiled, decorative woman who, 20 years younger than you, took your place as wife. Hands that always hurt from rough, deeply calloused cracks on the artist who makes pottery for a living in the cold region of Alaska can place curiosity into the mind of a reader, compelling them to want to learn more. Why, as an artist, is this women in such a cold, dark region to do her art? Does she love her work if it causes her pain, or is this self-punishment? 

 Well described hands can tell of a person’s age, lifestyle, heritage, employment, as well as their constitution or attitude.  Missing fingers, burns, scars, and other details can tell a touch of past history. Imagine the difference between handshakes or hugs or the subtle weathering of life depending on whether someone is a cook, mechanic, farmer, sailor, writer, or gardener.

Hands are significant depending on how they touch others –they can be nurturing, impersonal or made into fists that leave scars inside and out. Consider how you might describe hands as both a physical, energetic (how they move)  and metaphorical introduction to a scene. The hands may belong to you, to a character in your story, or some minor character, like the person working the counter at Starbucks, that upon seeing, spark a memory which can be a tool to gracefully transition into a flashback to reveal history of a family or individual.   

Begin with describing a pair of hands and make this is a window into your bigger story.


“Don’t try to figure out what other people want to hear from you; figure out what you have to say. It’s the one and only thing you have to offer.” -  Barbara Kingsolver

“And by the way, everything in life is writable about if you have the outgoing guts to do it, and the imagination to improvise. The worst enemy to creativity is self-doubt.”
― Sylvia Plath, The Unabridged Journals of Sylvia Plath

Memoir/Journaling Exercise:

Did you live in the same house throughout your childhood? Or, like me, did you move around a lot? List the places you remember living as a child. Do you have any special memories (good or bad) from each house you lived in? Explore what it felt like to live in the same place a long time, or to feel uprooted and face change if you were someone who moved often. Is there one place you remember more than others? Describe the home, or a room in the home, or the community or circumstances and why it stands out in your memory.

Something is missing!

Ever walk into a room and feel something is out of place or missing?  Ever wake with a strange feeling that things are not right? Ever lost your keys or phone, and been totally baffled by why they are not where you are certain you put them?

The things we miss tell us a great deal about what we care about, or what we do that defines our comfort zone.

Write about a moment in time when you noticed something was missing. It might be the first time you woke up in bed without a partner’s warmth lying next to you after a divorce and your feelings of loneliness (or relief), or the first time you picked up a phone to call your mom and realized that, now that she had recently passed away, you no longer had her to go to for sharing good news (or bad).   Perhaps what you are missing is your guilt after you finally “get past” a painful episode in your life, and how odd it feels not to be wracked with negative feelings for the first time in ages. You may be missing the mess in the kitchen right after your child goes to college (who’d imagine you’d miss that!). Are you missing your eyesight, your youth, your dog, your identity?

Write about what is missing, not just in describing the item, feeling, or person being removed from your life, but probe the feelings attached, and what the sudden awareness of the missing issue and the change in your  routine teaches you about yourself and your life at this time. 

“Your writing voice is the deepest possible reflection of who you are. The job of your voice is not to seduce or flatter or make well-shaped sentences. In your voice, your readers should be able to hear the contents of your mind, your heart, your soul.” -  Meg Rosoff

Memoir/Journaling exercise:

Make a list of what you have in mini-storage. Or in your attic. Or piled in a storage closet in your home. Then go check the list against what's really there, creating a new list if necessary. Keep both copies. What did you forget? What surprised you when you found it? How long has this stuff collected dust in storage? Will it remain in storage forever or do you have plans to let things go? How long have you been dragging certain items with you that are kept hidden away or saved for “someday when…?”

Consider writing about storage and/or something (or everything) that you keep but do not use regularly. What does it say about you or your life? Are there things you hold onto for reasons you can’t explain? Is it sentimentality, a memory of how hard it was to acquire that now makes this item hard to let go, or is it factors in your own character that makes you must collect or save certain things?

Let this exploration lead to a piece written about on one thing you continue to save or hide or drag with you through life and the memories or history behind the item. Or, write a piece about the material evidence you still own that speaks volumes about your past, your personality, or what you feel is important in life.

“The art of writing is the art of discovering what you believe.” - Gustave Flaubert

Memoir/Journaling Exercise:

Tell about a major storm you survived. Were you alone or with others? What season did the storm occur? Where were you as it happened? Was it unbearably hot or cold? Did your neighbors help you? Did you help your neighbors? What kind of damage did the storm leave in its wake? How did the storm and its aftermath affect your life from then on? Were you prepared for the storm before it actually hit or caught off guard? Was there anticipation, or shock, or unexpected (positive or negative) outcomes?  What emotional elements of your personality did weathering the storm trigger: fear, excitement, dread? Do you believe others remember it as you do now? Has your memory of the storm or associations to it changed over time? What did weathering that storm teach you?

Now consider the metaphorical storms you have survived in your life: divorce, a financial or health crisis, death of a loved one, an emotional bleak period of life? Ask yourself the same questions as above.

Consider writing (separately) about both storms. Look to see what parallels exist. If you look at how you react to physical storms, do you see the same element of your personality surfacing and affecting how you handle the metaphorical storms that arise in life?  Consider blending the two pieces to create one piece.