Posted by Mardi Jo Link in family, memory, neuroscience, writers on January 17, 2015
#1. Draw a Map
Although the simplistic right brain/left brain absolutes have largely been debunked by neuroscientists, it is true that different processes in the brain are used to draw a picture than to write a sentence. So if you are writing about the neighborhood where you grew up, for example, or the town where your grandparents lived, or even the house where you and your husband moved when you first got married, and are having trouble remembering what the place looked like, try drawing a map.
It doesn’t have to be true to scale — any unconscious errors might provide valuable insights. Your porch looks huge on your house map, even though it was barely a concrete threshold in real life? Hmm. Important things probably happened there. Your grandparents’ house is in bright colors while the surrounding town is barely sketched in pencil? It must have been a happy place to visit.
These are obvious examples but you get the idea. Map an important location from your past and it’s sure to inspire emotions and untapped memories.
#2. Write About a Photograph
For those of you who get squeamish at pairing the word “creative” with “nonfiction,” you’re not alone. Deciding what is truth, what is invention, and when to use one and not the other is a signature issue of the memoirist. It’s a continuum, with some writers clinging only to fact, while for others, anything seems to go. (There is also a worthwhile discussion on it here.) A photograph may provide some initial insurance for the fact-bound.
Unless it has been retouched, a photograph really is an instant of truth, of fact, and can offer writing opportunities. Who is in it, what are they doing, and why? Who took it? What is the occasion? Assign emotions and motives to those captured by the lens and the fact/fiction debate will come back quicker than a Polaroid. But, you’re going to have to take a stand on that at some point, anyway.
#3. Who’s the Black Sheep?
Of the five prompts, this one is my favorite. Whenever I offer it during a writer’s workshop, notebooks open, pencils move, and fingers click on keyboards. Immediately.
Think your family is too above board to have a black sheep? Then a.) maybe you shouldn’t be writing memoir, and b.) Uh oh.
#4. Hello’s and Goodbye’s
The first time you met your mother-in-law. The boyfriend you broke up with. The beloved grandfather who died weeks before his hundredth birthday. These are moments just loaded with meaning, and ripe for literary exploration. Beyond the dominant emotion (anxious, relieved, grief-stricken) how else did you feel? What were the physical sensations in your body? How do you feel about that moment now, and what have you learned from it?
Low hanging fruit to be sure, but worth reaching for all the same.
#5. A Time-Traveler’s Suitcase
This is a variation on a question making the rounds. Imagine that you are twenty years old. Or nine, or eighteen, or fifty; any age younger than your current one.
Now imagine that you are traveling to the present, and can only bring what you can fit into an old-fashioned suitcase.
What would you bring and why? Use those decisions to help understand what was most important to you in the past.
If you have some favorite prompts, share, please.