Sometimes I get into a writing funk. It’s as though I’m frozen in place.
Maybe this has happened to you. You’ve gone through a stressful event, you’re not sleeping well, or you’ve been consumed by work deadlines. Stress and fatigue are known to affect creativity and inhibit the brain from generating creative ideas.
I find that the harder I think when I’m in my slump, the more I blank out. I’ve learned that I need to think differently. I need to activate the part of my brain that comes up with new ideas, instead of the part that is sparked by stress.
One of the things I do to re-energize myself is read good works of literature. I also find that doing a few writing exercises helps me out of my rut.
One of my favorite books for this is The Daily Poet: Day-By-Day Prompts For Your Writing Practice by Kelli Russell Agodon and Martha Silano. If you’re in a slump, try this prompt from The Daily Poet.
Choose a color. Now write a poem only using images of that color. For example, if you chose white, your poem might include clouds, snow, yogurt, angels, paper, ping-pong balls, or plastic bags. The poem may or may not evoke an emotion associated with your chosen color.
Here are two more prompts from another of my favorite writing books, Old Friend from Far Away: The Practice of Writing Memoir by Natalie Goldberg. This book is geared towards writing memoir but the prompts are equally good for writing essays and poems and even coming up with the seed of an idea for a short story or character. Here are two sample prompts from the book:
Knew. What did you know that you didn’t want to know? Go. Ten minutes.
Repair. What have you tried to repair? Write for 10 minutes.
One of my friends is writing a travel memoir about a trip he took more than 20 years ago. He’s shared with me his writing struggles. Some details stand out as clear as if they happened yesterday. He remembers troubles along the way and the kindness of strangers. He can still recall the smell of the coffee and the way the biscuits and apricot jam tasted at a particular restaurant. He remembers the weather he had to struggle through on part of the trip and the jacket he was wearing.
Other parts of the journey are a complete blank.
I asked him a few questions to spark his memory, but ultimately here is what I suggested he do. If you’re struggling with recreating your past, you might want to try these tips too.
Write. Don’t think or talk too much about your memories. Instead write them down. It’s easy to over think your story and get tense because you can’t remember something. It also takes you out of your dream state and into an analytical mode, which isn’t a good place to be when you’re writing your draft.
Start with one small scene or detail. Pick one faint memory or even something distinct and write about it using all your senses. Remember how the air smelled after the rain — like a mixture of dust and electricity — or how it felt to finally stretch out on a soft bed and smell the sweet scent of freshly laundered sheets after so many hours on the road. The more you write about a memory or incident or moment, the more you will remember. Read more
As writers, almost every experience presents itself as good story material. Get pulled over for speeding? Take notes and see how you can use that drama in a story. Cut your finger off and need it reattached? Definitely take photos and notes for future reference. Aunt Mabel said something completely inappropriate at the Thanksgiving dinner table? Quick, mentally record all family reactions and dialogue.
Unfortunately, while some family members are naive about our writerly observations, others can be quite suspicious of all that scribbling we’re doing. I teach workshops and work one-on-one with people who want to write memoirs. One of my students’ big fears is what their families will think about their writing. Will mother be mad? Will grandma disown me? Will I lose access to a family member’s treasure trove of historical documents and artifacts?
It’s true that some of these fears may be legitimate. Others may not. Here are a few thoughts and ideas to consider if you’re concerned with what your relatives will think about your writing.
1. Write for yourself. It’s hard to be creative when you’re worried about what people will think. Tell yourself that you’ll examine the potential for conflict during the revisions. Read more
There’s more than one way to craft a personal or family story. Consider how you could create a form that fits your personal style and passion.
If a memoir is a slice of life, you might want to write one based on your recipes, gardens you’ve grown, or cars you’ve owned. Find more ideas about structuring your life story in the examples below.
A life in lists. In a workshop I attended, Patricia Charpentier, author of Eating an Elephant: Write Your Life One Bite at a Time, shared different approaches to writing a life story, including one made up of lists. She once worked with a man who never wrote a complete sentence. He processed his life by making daily lists. Charpentier said the man had been making a list every day for 30 years. Topics included, “What I like about so and so,” the headlines of the day, and what movie was showing.
If you’re interested in writing a life story in lists, check out Listography Journal: Your Life in Lists by Lisa Nola. Read more
In my last blog post, I wrote about how author Elizabeth Rosner used a structural technique to add subtext to her novel. In today’s post, I share an example from a memoir.
In Lisa Dale Norton’s memoir Hawk Flies Above: Journey to the Heart of the Sandhills, she wrote 12 sections called “Notebooks” that created connections between chapters. Norton’s idyllic childhood ended when her parents divorced when Norton was 12. After 13 years of drifting, attending college, and surviving a rape where she was left for dead, Norton returned to Ericson, Nebraska. She began writing stories intertwined with threads of the landscape and its impact on her imagination and identity.
Norton weaves natural images of plants, wildlife and the landscape of her childhood summer home in Nebraska with an account of her search for self as she returns to the Sandhills, her childhood home.
“By lying close to the land, skin to sand, bone to wind, I believed I could merge with the grasses, with the hills. I believed I could become whole again. I did not know this on a conscious level.” Read more
Writing about ourselves can be a terrifying and confounding task, whether it’s for an About page, a memoir, or autobiography.
If you’re confronted with the task of writing about yourself, it can be an easier project if you think in terms of storytelling. What are the stories of your life?
Try these story starters to create a list of topics you can draw from to begin your manuscript. Armed with a list of ideas, think about the scenes you could write. Once you have raw material, you can shape it into a finished whole.
- What are the pivotal moments of your life?
- Who were the influential people in your life — for better or worse.
- What is your philosophy?
- What are your most striking childhood memories?
- What were the highs and lows of your life? Read more
What are the big events in your life? Big, life-changing, world changing events can be turning points and crucial material for writing a memoir, autobiography, or essay.
Some of the most compelling stories I’ve heard from students in my memoir classes have been about events, including 9-11, the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, and the Apollo 11 mission in which Buzz Aldrin and Neil Armstrong made history by being the first men to walk on the moon.
Writing about the big moments in history grounds your stories in time and place and adds historical context. When I began writing my memoir, I created a timeline with dates and ages of key characters, including significant events in my family and in history. Read more