EXERCISE ONE: “IN THE KITCHEN”
Good writing comes to you through all the senses. In this exercise, we will try to engage all the senses – sight, smell, touch, sound, taste – but setting a scene in a kitchen, preferably from your childhood. (More contemporary is fine, too, if you prefer.) Start by taking a sheet of paper and listing the five senses along the top. Next, decide on a kitchen to focus on. It can be your family kitchen, a kitchen at camp, your grandparents’ home, a friend’s house – any kitchen that you can see clearly in your mind’s eye.
Next, go there in your memory and “wander” around. Smell the smells. Is something simmering, is something burning? What are the sounds you hear? Are you fingers cold, running them under the hand pump as you wash them for dinner? Is the dough for the molasses cookies stuck to the roof of your mouth? You don’t have to write out a lot of sentences. Just gather enough images and impressions to make the room come alive for you (and eventually your readers) in vivid detail.
Once you have that room clear in your mind’s eye, bring someone into the room with you. Is it your sister who is going to help you raid the cookie jar? Is it your father, who wants to know why you haven’t finished your lima beans that are congealing on the plate before you? Let us see that person and how his/her presence changes the charge in the room.
Finally, make something happen. It doesn’t have to be a major event. It can be as simple as choking down one of those disgusting lima beans, or perhaps you and sister getting caught red-handed. This is what would be called the climax of your essay/story.
Be as true to the memory as you can without embellishment. If you want to add dialogue, try to be as genuine to the person’s voice as you can. While you can’t necessarily remember the exact words that were spoken, it is possible to remember the essence of what was said. (For example, I always knew when my mother used my first and middle name, I was in trouble.)
Think of a favorite photograph (or just a “memory picture”) that captures a moment you can vividly recall – perhaps from childhood or an event that marked a change in your life. Then describe that “snapshot” in full detail. Don’t try to tell the reader too much. We don’t necessarily need to know how you got to the location the photo was taken or what happened afterwards. Your job is to make that instant before the shutter clicked come alive for your readers, to make us feel like we are in that environment with you. Tell us not only what you saw, but also what you heard, smelled, touched and maybe tasted. Pay attention to the minor things. This takes time. Close your eyes and go back to that place. Think and remember.
Remember, an essay is a circle. It needs a beginning, middle and end. Start us somewhere (just about to jump off a diving board) and take us somewhere – even if it’s to the moment right before you hit the water. In order to come full circle, start with an impression (“The diving board was rough and slippery beneath my feet. My nose was filled with the smell of chlorine. My heart was pounding to the chorus of “Jump!” that was echoing around the pool.”) Then, work your way back to that first impression in order to close. (“I couldn’t hear the voices anymore. There was nothing but a white buzzing noise in my ears. I felt like I was suspended in the air for what seemed like forever, and then I started to fall. The light sparkled off the top of the water. I saw it coming at me faster and faster. I closed my eyes, and then…”) The most important thing is to use your memory and imagination, take your time, go back to that moment, relive it and make it real for us. And have some fun.
EXERCISE THREE: “SACRED OBJECT”
Google the poem “The Lanyard” by Billy Collins. Note how a simple object – a lanyard – catapults the poet into a greater meditation on a larger topic. Think of an object you possess (or once wish you possessed or lost or gave someone) and use it as a springboard to tell a story about what it meant/means to you. The thing itself doesn't have to be anything exotic – it can be anything from smooth stone you picked up on a beach to an old pincushion – but let the object take you, and your reader, somewhere.
I continue to take on new private editing and public speaking clients, and I am exploring future work with seniors. As much as I enjoy writing and performing, I consider teaching my life’s true work. As I said at the end of a recent column:
Why do I feel this urgency to help people tell their stories? Yes, because it’s fun, but there’s more. My mom and dad are gone, as are most of their friends. I have no living uncles or aunties. Almost an entire generation has left me, taking large chunks of my personal history with them. It’s as though walking down a long corridor, flicking off lights in each room you pass, forever blacking out the contents. Teaching my workshops is just my way of saying, Leave a light on.
That’s it for this time. Thanks for stopping by. Bye for now.