Heartwood Writers & Artists
“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
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.
“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
“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
“The art of writing is the art of discovering what you believe.” - Gustave Flaubert
“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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Our bodies say a great deal about our lives because they develop and wear down according to our actions and experiences. A man who works a jackhammer all day ends up with strong arms – perhaps strong enough to hold a baby for 4 hours without feeling his arms go numb, though he may have a heart going numb as he watches his house burn down. A women who waitresses to feed her kids for years as a single parent, may have varicose veins – and while they make her feel self-conscious, they can be viewed with literary respect as a map of her commitment and love to her children. The way people stand (body language) tells a great deal about their physical discomfort or aggression in situations too.
Consider telling a scene of your story from the perspective of how a body part plays into the bigger narrative. Someone who travels extensively, or who has such wanderlust they can’t commit to a place or situation, can be described through narrative bringing the focus to their feet. Perhaps they are standing in an airport, and the scene begins with the character looking down to notice the shoes they’ve chosen to get through airport security quickly. How many other times has this person glanced down to see their feet against the polish3ed floor of an airport… or the hallway of a home just as they walk out? Can you tell a story by looking at the world through a physical element of the body, and using this to create a deeper metaphor for how life unfolds ?
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.
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.
People often feel compelled to act (or interact) with others according to what they think they should or must do, while in reality they would behave differently if they were being truly honest. For example, imagine a new wife smiling politely to a mother-in-law as the older woman is criticizing everything possible about the young girl’s upcoming wedding. Imagine an employee listening to a boss take credit for his or her work in front of the CEO in a circumstance where the employee can not contradict what is being said without causing a serious threat to his own job. Imagine a lover whispering words of endearment and promises of faithfulness while making excuses why they have to leave, just before rushing off to a pending date with someone else. In each case, people often say and do one thing, while meaning another. Life circumstances often find us in situations where we behave in ways that are not in accordance with what we really want or should express. We lie to be kind, to avoid confrontation, or to get something we want from someone else.
Consider a time in your life when someone told you what you wanted to hear rather than deal with you honestly. Or, consider a time when someone said one thing to you, but behaved with different intention. Consider a time when you were not totally honest with another person because you wanted to keep peace or because you didn’t have the strength to be honest, and how it felt to speak words that didn’t align with your feelings.
Put this moment into scene.Try to reveal the internal conflict of the situation in the way the character (you or others in the room) stands moves or speaks. Strive to show (rather than tell) what is going on by describing your or the other person’s physiology, actions, words and behaviors. If someone else is speaking, when and why did you begin to question their honesty, or did you once naively believe what you were told and now understand, only in retrospect, that you were purposely misled.
Once you have fully grounded the reader in the moment through physically sharing the scene, segway to the internal thought you are experiencing (as speaker or listener). Share your experience of guilt, frustration, joy or distrust.
Move then to reflection on what made this moment important. How did this innocent (or not so innocent) lie, however well intended, affect your life, decisions or future?
Consider something you have done in your life in tandem with someone else. Examples may be riding a tandem bike or taking a canoe trip, where the person in front has one job and the person in the back another – one person steers and the other is power. Is working together easy or nearly impossible? Consider other instances where you worked with someone as a team – perhaps playing “nice cop, bad cop” with the husband (purposely) to get a teenager to take you seriously when you enforced rules, or working with a sibling to get an aging parent to accept that it is time to move into an assisted living situation. Have you ever had to work with a family member to clear out a house after someone passed, or started a business with someone where working together was vital to success? Have you ever worked with a loved one to plan their funeral or write their will, carefully addressing what can be awkward or uncomfortable. Have you had to paint a room with someone, build something, or cook a meal where authority or the distribution or chores was a tug of war?
They say two heads are better than one, yet working with others to accomplish a goal isn’t always easy. And yet, sometimes, great conversations occur when you are alone working with someone else on a common goal. The way tasks are approached, the dialogue transpired and how each person reacts to the other’s contribution certainly reveals a great deal about the dynamic between two individuals.
Put into scene the memory of working with someone to show the relationship dynamic in a subtle way. Don’t’ tell the reader about the dynamic, but show it through action and dialogue. Then, once this is accomplished, add your insight or personal thoughts to reveal what you learned or felt in the struggle to get along (not that it has to be a struggle, of course.) and how this influenced the sequence of events or the relationship from that point on.
“Let the world burn through you. Throw the prism light, white hot, on paper.”
“We are all apprentices in a craft where no one ever becomes a master.”