Writing Alchemy: 5 Prompts for Digging Deep for Your Own Truth

by Kendra Bonnett on June 20, 2012

catnav-alchemy-activePost #52 – Memoir and Fiction, Writing Alchemy – Kendra Bonnett and Matilda Butler

Do you know who Brenda Ueland is…ah, was? If you do and have read her writing craft book If You Want to Write: A Book about Art, Independence and Spirit, then you know how much she believed in relying on personal detail for truthfulness in our writing.

If you haven’t had the pleasure of experiencing Ueland, I suggest you start by following this link to a video I posted on She Writes today. This is a short piece that Matilda made about two years ago for our Writing in Five series. Then come back here and try the five writing prompts I’m posting below that will help you dig into what we call your inner writer to find your own version of the truth.

Yes, I know that in Something’s Gotta Give, Diane Keaton’s character told Jack Nicholson’s Harry Sanborn that the truth doesn’t have versions…only in this case maybe it does. Because we all view life, people, events and the day-to-day objects around us through our own special lens. That lens is our experience and perspective.

Want proof? Think about the desks and chairs and the height of the bathroom sinks in your nursery school. They were perfect for you. But visit the same classroom with your own child and you’ll wonder how her teacher manages in a room full of furniture and equipment more suitable for Barbie. It’s all about what you bring to the writing.

5 Writing Prompts for Your Inner Writer

Whether you are writing a memoir, a company biography, a keepsake for your children and grandchildren or the Great American Novel, you need five essential elements of powerful prose to breathe life into your writing. Here are five ideas for digging deep. For:

  1. Characters developed with a precision of detail that gives birth to a complete, three-dimensional person: If you’re writing memoir, start with yourself and ask what’s your personal turning point? What factors caused you to be the person you have become? Write for 10 minutes.
  2. Emotions identified and so vividly expressed that readers empathize, understand, even believe they know the characters: Start watching people in coffee shops, food courts, airports…anywhere you can watch and not appear to be intruding. Watch people interact. Note their body language. Even without hearing the words or knowing what people are talking about, do you have a sense of the emotions? Start keeping a notebook describing body language, facial expressions and gestures. How many of these do you use? Try to describe your own emotional expressions.
  3. Strong Dialogue that communicates while moving the story forward and captures the tension, emotion and pacing in a scene: Since you’re out and watching people, try to listen to conversations…again without being rude or intrusive. If you can’t do that, pay attention to dialogue on television or listen to talk radio. Or record a conversation of your own. Transcribe it to get a sense of how people really talk. You’re going to be surprised at the idioms, unfinished sentences, jargon and sloppy sentence structure. You can bring some of this to your writing…just remember that you need to balance verity with readability.
  4. A Time and Place described in detail to give a story context and verity and to show how the characters and story were shaped by them: Spend 10 minutes describing the time and place of your scene. Make a list of everything that is unique or special about the day/date and location. Now consider their significance in terms of your story.
  5. Sensory detail that draws on all Five Senses to paint a scene so vibrant and alive that readers don’t simply picture it in their mind–they see, hear, smell, taste and touch the author’s world: Close your eyes and experience a scene. Remember to draw on all five senses.
  • See the threadbare fabric in your grandmother’s favorite chair.
  • Taste is about more than what you’re eating. You can taste the salt in the ocean air or the bitter bile that moves from your stomach to your mouth when you’re angry. And what about the sweet taste of success?
  • Listen to an airplane overhead; notice how the sound changes as the plane draws closer, flies above you and moves away. Distance is important when writing about sound.
  • Smell the flowers…the ham cooking in the oven, the cat’s litter box that needs cleaning. Notice too how more than one scent can layer.

memoir, memoir tips, memoir writing prompts, Storytelling

Writing Alchemy memoir book, memoir writing book, how to write a memoir, memoir edition of writing book, how to tell a storyWe’ll post more articles about Writing Alchemy in the coming months. Have you placed your pre-order yet? Until June 25, you can save $10 by clicking here.

Writing Alchemy:How to Write Fast and Deep begins shipping soon. Be sure to take advantage of our special pre-order price today.

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