Writing Exercises

Important People in our Lives

November 8, 2013, 12:58 am

In the essay “Grown Men” by Barry Lopez, he recounts his memories of influential men in his life. About them he notes,
“I was, of course, very fond of them, as young men are fond of their grandfathers by blood or not; I realized just before they died that there was something of transcendent value in them, fragile and as difficult to extract as the color of a peach.”

The way he struggles to pinpoint the influence these men had on him, “as difficult to extract as the color of a peach” is one of my most favorite lines. To me, it captures perfectly his inability to express how important these men were.

Think of a person who has/had value in your life and DESCRIBE this person. Be descriptive in your telling: how he/she looks, sounds, feels, acts, talks, etc.
1. Go through the writing process: brainstorming, free writing.
2. Then construct a paragraph or more. Start basic, add layers, watch it grow.
3. Then, each day, go back and make it BEAUTIFUL. Replace bland and boring words with descriptive words.
4. Find the perfect simile or metaphor.

Before long, you will have a beautiful tribute to a valued person in your life.

Wrestling with Uncertainty – My Favorite!

November 8, 2013, 12:55 am

“Your beliefs are in jeopardy, only when you don’t know what they are,” said Jay Allison. However, beliefs can change, and they often do. As John Updike observed, “A person believes various things at various times. Even on the same day.” Therefore, if our beliefs can be changeable things, we need to understand their part in our lives.

Think about a time in your life when your beliefs were challenged—throwing you into a “moral dilemma.” Your beliefs steered you in one direction, but your actions led you in another. What made you “cross that line?” What was the justification for stepping over it? And were there repercussions in doing so?

The term cognitive dissonance refers to the feeling of uncomfortable tension which comes from holding two conflicting thoughts in the mind at the same time.

Cognitive: concerned with acquisition of knowledge: relating to the process of acquiring knowledge by the use of reasoning, intuition, or perception
Dissonance: inconsistency: lack of consistency or compatibility between actions or beliefs

Dissonance increases with:
• The importance of the subject to us.
• How strongly the dissonant thoughts conflict.
• Our inability to rationalize and explain away the conflict.

Dissonance is often strong when we believe something about ourselves and then do something against that belief. For example, if I believe that I am a defender of the downtrodden, but then turn a blind eye to someone in need, the discomfort I feel as a result is cognitive dissonance.

To release the tension we can take one of three actions:
• Change our behavior.
• Justify our behavior by changing the conflicting cognition.
• Justify our behavior by adding new cognitions.

Think of the factors that influenced your decision in such a moral dilemma. What made you step over your boundary (or to side with one side of your beliefs, over the other).

As a writer, I love wrestling with such uncertainty. How one justifies, or comes to terms, with this cognitive dissonance makes for some great writing. Think of a time when you faced an internal conflict and write about the motives for the decisions you made: personal, circumstantial, social, political.

This is the set up for some great writing! Good luck.

Writer’s Block

November 8, 2013, 12:48 am

Writer’s Block? No such thing! There is always something to write about. Challenge yourself to chart out “things you’ve changed your mind about.”

Categories: moral values, political beliefs, religious beliefs, cultural values, personal/life priorities, ambitions/goals, people. Return to this list every day for a week or so. This is good material!!

Once you have a list, choose one. Ask yourself: Why do beliefs change? What made you change your mind from a previously held firm belief? How did society/peers/teachers/family influence you? Think of people in your life. Did any of them influence your beliefs?

Or perhaps your opinion on an important person in your life has changed. Look back on your list. Is there something/someone that you used to value/prioritize much more or less than you do now. Try to think of beliefs/issues that you used to have a “black and white” stance on, but now you have a more nuanced opinion.

The Six-Word Memoir

November 1, 2013, 3:52 pm

Ernest Hemingway was once challenged to write a novel in just six words. His heartbreaking result:

“For sale: baby shoes, never worn.”

The constraint, it turned out, fueled rather than inhibited creativity.  The six-word memoir is now a common exercise for students, challenging them to encapsulate a story in just a few words:

“Sometimes lonely in a crowded bed.”

“My life made my therapist laugh.”

“Wasn’t born a redhead — fixed that.”

“I still make coffee for two.”

“Said he loved me, he lied.”

“Two girls, both of them me.”

“Big dreams, big heart, big mouth.”

“Life is better with headphones on.”

At its core, the six-word memoir offers a simple way for anyone of any age to try to answer the question that defines us all: Who am I?

Chef Mario Batali certainly did when he wrote, “Brought it to a boil often.”

Others try to capture one aspect of their life such as, “According to Facebook we broke up” or

“Mom’s Alzheimer’s: she forgets, I remember.”

The six-word memoir takes a basic human need—self-expression—and makes it accessible, easy and often quite addictive.

Give it a try!