Creative and Memoir Writing Class Notes

By Carol Brennan King    April 14, 2021

Creative Writing

In Creative Writing today, we talked about some writing exercises for richer character, material that came originally from

Today we discussed the first three exercises.

  1. Play ‘head, and shoulders, knees, and toes.’

Think about what your character looks like, starting at the head, then downwards, each time thinking about what you can see that your character needs to see because it says so much.

  • Red hair and freckles: what does that bring to mind?
  • Long straight hair in need of a combing?
  • A haircut so perfect that it cannot be long from the salon?
  • Or brown hair and glasses? Which of the preceding helps you see the character better?
  • Bright lipstick or non? Regular and over-white teeth, or she hid a smile behind her hand?
  • What kind of clothing, color, price point maybe, fit, style – au courant? And what does it tell you?

And don’t miss the feet, at least what is on them? You don’t need to tell your audience all of this, but

1. You need to know and

2. You need to pick a couple of these things that will show just who this person is. And write!

2. Now describe one of  your characters, perhaps using one detail from each level from head to toes. Think about “The clothes make the man,” as Mark Twain once said.

Clothes may signal one or more of many things:

What do the character’s clothes signal he or she intends to do?

What status or title do they imply? Is the character wearing a military or police cap? Is it an old one, an honorary one?  Does it imply past honors?

Can you tell the rank of the individual, a current or past rank, whether in a service vocation or heading up some kind of organization? Perhaps in the Church?

Then how much does the invidual’s personality show through his or her garb, or just through his or her shoes? Is the clothing fitted or skimpy, vintage or trendy, or is it the kind of clothing that would allow the character to disappear in a crowd?

Now look again. What tip-offs can you see in regard to the person’s profession or educational status? Check out hats, eyewear, medical paraphernalia, a teacher’s bookbag, or one belonging to a student.

Remember as well, all of what you see could have been intentionally chosen as a disguise or to mislead you. So introduce your character by paying attention to his garb. Paying attention though, does not mean telling the reader every detail.

3. Use language, accent, voice timbre to introduce emotion.

“The rhythm, tone, and quality of the language we use in narration all contribute to an impression of the character.” Think about how formally the character speaks, how brusquely, how loud, or soft, and what happens on his or her face as the words tumble, or slip, or whisper, or are shouted out? Does the person have a speech impediment, or does he or she speak softly so the hearer has to do the work?

You can “use short phrases and the explosive alliteration of ‘p’ and ‘t’ sounds to create a sense of the character’s jerky, angry movements.”

Write a paragraph describing an action, or a person feeling a strong emotion. Think a bride, a widow, a suitor with a ring in his pocket, an athlete who slipped. Try to use the rhythm and movement of your sentences to embody or represent what just or is happening.

Assignment: choose any of the exercises above and do them for something you are writing now or are thinking about writing.

Memoir writing

Notes from The Case for Writing a Memoir in Essays

Go to the above site for more on these notes.

Beth Kephart on the Power of Fragmentation in Books By Sonja Livingston, Megan Stielstra, and More

  1. Memoir-in-essays: Sonja Livingston’s book Ghostbread,” became a kind of memoir-in-essays—a poeticized true story in which all the unnecessary things are absent from the pages. There are, indeed, 122 small chapters, plus an epilogue—some chapters no more than a paragraph long, most stretching over two to three pages. There are no forced transitions between these chapters, but there is the continuity of chronology.” Together, the small chapters narrate a life.

2. “In The Wrong Way to Save Your Life, Megan Stielstra also relies on distinct, self-contained pieces to present a sustaining view of the life she has lived.” Stielstra divides her stories into four sections, each one related to a decade of her life. Although Stielstra uses essays as does Livingston, the difference is one of length. Stielstra uses only four longer essays for each of the four sections of her life, each one dealing with fear from a different perspective. She begins rather innoccuously with her fear of dogs, then of losing her father, then of depression, and finally of the possible outcome a child’s battle with cancer. You can see how the chapters would/could show great growth in her life. We talked about the fact that some writers are also gifted artists and might build a book creating even the pages the work is mounted on or by filling the books with her own artwork or photos., all chosen to tell the story.

3. Kephart writes “In Meet Me in the In-Between, that Bella Pollen explores the root and impact of her insatiable wanderlust in narrative true stories—about the inevitable need for attention by the young middle-child version of herself, say, or about love affairs gone wrong, or about encounters with her elusive father in movie theaters—bridged by alluring graphic art that economically and emotionally relays stories Pollen chooses not to tell with words, such as the ones about her family’s transatlantic journey and her parents’ separation.”

4. Brian Turner used another approach in writing his memoir My Life as a Foreign Country tapping on his experience during the war and imagining himself as a “Drone aircraft plying the darkness above my body.” Turner wants his reader to see his world as he sees his world, in parts of a whole. And we don’t live our life in chapters that always make sense. He writes as though looking down on a film of his experiences during the war and after, picking and choosing the ones he will share. And choosing the format for those word pictures, some as short as a hundred words or so, some many pages long, some feeling like prosey poems, and some through the eyes of the enemy as he imagined it.

He frees us, as do these other memoirists, from feeling like we have to just write a book, one that looks and sounds like a novel, only it is the narrative of our life. We too live our stories in bits and pieces, some that link to the bit before it and some that have no relationship to the before.

Assignment: Write an essay with a purpose, think about what you want the reader to feel or think or perhaps do when they finish reading it. It is not that you want them to change the world, but you would like to touch them in some way through the writing.

And feel free to kind of free-form this essay, adopting any of the formats we talked about today.

Happy Writing!

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