Friday, September 28, 2012

Playing Around: To Hear or Not to Hear

The object of this lesson is to play around with the sound in one of your pieces.  Several ideas jump out at me immediately:
  • Turn the sound off.  Look at a picture or imagine a scene in your mind.  Write it all with no dialogue--no allusion to the spoken word or other noises--whatsoever.  Write it like a silent movie without the captions.
  • Turn the dialogue off.  Use the ambient sound to tell a story.  Is it an argument?  Are dogs barking, children screaming, feet stomping, pans clanking?  Is someone falling to sleep?  Do we hear a lullaby, gentle rustling, even breathing?  What can the other sounds tell us?
  • Use only the dialogue.  Write an entire piece with dialogue only.  Allude to action, but don't tell us exactly what is happening.  Let us guess (kind of what a mother does every time she closes the bathroom door).
  • Use a song.  Write a piece to the general theme of a piece of music.  You could rewrite the lyrics to a well known song or simply write actions or a story line that would fit into the theme of "Jaws" of "Into the Hall of the Mountain King" from the Peer Gynt Suite.  It doesn't matter, but let the sound propel your telling and not the other way around.
  • Use a sound device.  Allow yourself to play with a literary convention.  Maybe you'd like to make a stab at a poem, tell a story in sonnet (or limerick!) form.  Maybe you don't want to be that formal, but you do want to work on employing a rhythm to your sentences.  Maybe you'd just like a little alliteration (beginning words with the same consonant sound) or consonance (just using a lot of the same consonant sound but not necessarily at the beginning--"tatters of litter in bitter cold streets" has lots of ts but not necessarily at the beginnings of the words).
You can apply these techniques to any topic, one that you've been planning to write or one that has just popped into your head.

But have fun with it!  Play with the words and let them delight you.  Your joy will likely tickle us as well.

Thursday, September 27, 2012

Before Friday, September 28 and into the future: Playing around

"Some people talk about play as if it were a relief from serious learning or even worse: a waste of time. But for children, play is exceedingly serious…and important! In fact, play is a way for children to learn who they are, how the world works, solve problems, and to express feelings. Yes, play is the real work of childhood..."  Fred Rogers, Children's Museums and the Role of Play

I don't think children are the only ones who need play, and a recent discussion with yet another who seemed to be losing motivation got me back to thinking about joy...and play.  In her book, The Gifts of Imperfection (available from the Carnegie Library here and Amazon here), shame researcher BrenĂ© Brown devotes an entire chapter to the importance of play in a whole-hearted life. And if our stories need to be anything, they need to be whole-hearted.

But, you might say, this is supposed to be a class, and classes are about work and writing is work!

Yes, writing is work.  But we lose something, miss something important, if we don't play a little.

Over the next several weeks, these posts will be about playing with our pieces.  Each week, I will introduce an aspect of our writing that we can play with as well as some concrete ideas for how to do it.  I would urge you to pick one and try to apply it to a story or write a new story, even if it may seem a little goofy.

Friday, September 21, 2012

Week of September 23, 2012: A Day to Remember, a Day to Forget

In life writing and all writing, we often are thinking about where we're going, the climax, the big stuff.  But you can't get to the big stuff--or at least get a big reaction out of the big stuff--if you haven't paid attention to the little stuff that got you there.

For example, before there was your wedding day (if you've gotten married), there was the day of the proposal.  Before that, there was the day you "knew" that you had found the right one.  Still before that came the day you met the man you married.  And even before that came the day you learned what love looked like.  And that day, which may not stand out immediately in your memory at first, is a very important day.

This week's assignment is to write about the day that brings about something else.  Pick one of the major life experiences you've already written about and work backward to uncover the moment that you made the mental connection between an amorphous idea and what it would look like in real life that caused you to take the path leading to your life experience.  As you explore that day, think especially about the following:
  • What were you doing before you had your mental "awakening"?
  • What did you see, smell, feel as you witnessed what changed your mind?
  • What had you thought before (if anything)?
  • How did this specific event influence your later experience?
 You might ask why such an exercise is important, which is a good question.  Quite simply, the different reasons that bring us to the major life experiences that we share with so many others are the very thing that sets our experiences apart from others and makes us unique.  Millions of us have gotten married, yet no one else's wedding, no one else's marriage is exactly like our own.  A story of my wedding may not be much more than a litany of traditions followed by countless others in my family and culture.  The story of how I chose whom I chose or why I decided to consider marriage--those stories--will reveal to my family and others much more of my personality than the simple wedding story can do on its own.

Friday, September 14, 2012

Week of September 16, 2012: How Erikson Can Help

Great news!  Our community initiative Share a Pair of Stories for National Life Writing Month was approved by the library!

You can look at the guidelines at  You are not obligated to participate in this initiative in any way--it is something we are holding outside of our class to encourage others in the community to write and share their stories (although, after hearing about some of your experiences, I would love to hear about your families' thoughts as well!).  And, as you all know, when we write and listen to others' stories, we become more connected and more appreciative as well.  This connection and appreciation is our goal for the community.

But what about us and our writing?

You may have heard of the psychologist Eric Erikson whose work in the psycho-social stages of life profoundly influenced ideas of change in the human mind and behavior.  These same stages can actually give us access to some great ways of interpreting our memories.
Consider his stages:
  • trust vs. mistrust (nursing) - guide for writing:  betrayal, loyalty, danger, safety
  • autonomy vs. shame and doubt (toddler years/toilet training) guide for writing: control, loss of control, pride, shame
  • initiative vs. guilt (preschool/exploration) guide for writing: the quest, disappointment, failure, success
  • industry vs. inferiority (early school age)  guide for writing:  failure, success, the power of one's actions
  • identity vs. role confusion (peer relationships)  guide for writing: strategy, manipulation, coming of age
  • intimacy vs. isolation (intimate relationships)  guide for writing: romance, understanding intimately
  • generativity vs. stagnation (community relationships) guide for writing:  where you were then, where you were now, a new appreciation for where others were then
  • ego integrity vs. despair (reflection on life)  guide for writing: reflection, still living, holes, etc.
  • despair vs. ego integrity (dying)  guide for writing: reflection (looking forward/looking back, echoes, etc.)
Even though you don't necessarily need to write about a day to remember with a partner, you might want to take this initiative as an opportunity to write about a day to remember on your memoir story list or to revise a story or your memorable day in the past.  As you do so, you might want to think about the stages above and re-evaluate what you have written.  What stage were you in at the time the occurrence took place?  What were you trying to do or what need were you trying to fulfill?  How does this reflection impact the step you are on now and the need your psyche is trying to meet?

Hopefully, an example of this will follow in the days to come!

Friday, September 7, 2012

What Has Life Writing Meant to You?

The Allegheny County Library Association is collecting statements on what life writing has meant to you.

You can post your thoughts at

Week of September 12, 2012: Then and Now - What Would Piaget Say?

Last week, we tried interpreting our memories and relating our perceptions using a visual metaphor: reflective surfaces.

This week, I would like to use a different type of reflective approach--a psychological looking back.  Jean Piaget was a Swiss psychologist who did a great deal of work with cognitive development in children.  Piaget's stages themselves, however, can be used to make your writing more interesting, especially if you work them backward.

So, here are Piaget's stages of cognitive development:
  • The sensorimotor stage, seen in children under 2:  The world is perceived through the senses, and the child aims to control his body and eventually to control his environment (and meet his needs) through the control of the body)
  • The preoperational stage, generally seen in children from 2 to 7:  Children begin to understand the world as separate from them, even though they can't quite imagine seeing it from any perspective but their own.  They acquire language in this stage and begin to use it skillfully and also begin to understand that quantities and qualities may remain the same even in different environments.
  • The concrete operational stage, generally seen in children from 7 to early puberty: Children begin to use logic, but they do better applying it in SPECIFIC circumstances, especially ones that they can visualize.  They also can begin to extrapolate a bit (if an apple is a fruit and fruits grow on plants, then apples must grow on plants).
  • The formal operational stage, generally seen in puberty and beyond, although some experts doubt that all people reach this stage:  People in this stage are now able to think in abstract ways, and using general ideas, can use logic to solve problems.
To be honest, I think that we still use cognitive skills from all of these stages, but we tend only to report the last one.

For example:
When Minnie's heart broke after Mickey spurned her, she knew she must be in love.

Now this is all abstraction.  What if we made it just a little more concrete?

Revision to include concrete operational descriptors:
When Minnie's heart broke after Mickey refused to answer her, refused even to acknowledge that she had spoken, Minnie knew that what she felt must be love.

Okay.  So now we know what Mickey does, but how about seeing the interaction of the objects of the world from Minnie's point of view.

Revision to include preoperational descriptors:
 "Drat!" Mickey muttered.  "I broke my last pencil!"
"I have an extra, Mickey," Minnie volunteered.  "Would you like to borrow mine?"

Mickey turned to Donald, sitting on his other side.  "Donald, do you have another pencil I could borrow?"

Minnie's heart was breaking.  Mickey had clearly torn it in two.  She must really love him if he could hurt her this much.

Now we get more of the scene.  It no longer sounds like an adult recalling an adult memory in abstraction.  We have the details and some of the twisted logic that make this a middle school memory.  Even if the memory hadn't been from middle school, the additional details in the environment would have revealed far more about the type of story you want to tell.  But how do we really feel that we are there?  Through our senses, of course!

Revision to include the senses and the actions of the body:

Minnie could hear the splintering from her own hard classroom chair.

"Drat!" Mickey muttered.  "I broke my last pencil!"

"I have an extra, Mickey," Minnie volunteered, quickly digging in her purse and producing a sparkly pencil which she held out a few inches from his nose.  "Would you like to borrow mine?"

Mickey didn't blink, didn't breathe, didn't twitch.  He just turned, Minnie's bubblegum-scented pencil actually brushing his nose on his way to face Donald, who was sitting on his other side.  "Donald, do you have another pencil I could borrow?"

Minnie gagged on her own hopes.  Her heart pounded ragged beats.  Clearly Mickey had rent it in two.  It could only be love.  Only love could twist your guts.  Only love could make the sweet fragrance of bubblegum not quite covering the lead and sawdust scent of pure pencil become so nauseating.  Only love.  Only love.

Do you see now how the stages can really be used to put us in a place, can make a moment come much more alive?