by Kat Coe
1. “Last Tuesday”
Where were you last Tuesday? What were you doing? Write it out – all of it. Start at the very beginning of your day. Did you wake up to an alarm, or the radio? Perhaps a CD playing your favorite song. Maybe you woke to the sweet chirping of songbirds outside your window, sunlight streaming in through your heavy, wine-colored drapes. What happened in that first moment of consciousness? Write it out. Don’t edit; don’t criticize or calculate. Write for ten minutes, straight, pouring as much specific detail onto the page as you possibly can!
Several years ago, I accidentally emailed a complete stranger who lived on the opposite side of the country. I had been trying to find a friend with whom I hadn’t spoken in a couple of years, but remembered her email address incorrectly. As fate would have it, a very nice man responded to me, apologizing for being the wrong recipient, but interested in becoming email pen-pals with me, after he read what I’d written [to my friend] about the taste of strawberries. In the email, I’d written my friend about a memory I had of the two of us sharing a plate of strawberry shortcake, late one night, in high school. The memory/letter turned into an exploration that tried to describe the taste of a pure, fresh strawberry and imagined what that sensation might be like for a person who has never had that explosion of flavor on their tongue before. All of this to say – your turn! Eat a strawberry. Eat it slowly. Smell it. Feel it on your tongue. Sit in front of your computer, or your open journal, pen in hand, and write it. Try to grasp every sensation you can. The goal is to turn off your internal censor and fill a full page worth of strawberry description. Are you drooling, yet?
For an added challenge, hit the grocery store or the neighborhood fruit stand, the local sushi restaurant, or the Rocky Mountain Oyster Festival, and try something you’ve NEVER tasted before. Take your computer or your notebook and write it. Write fast, don’t shut down your impulses – even if you find yourself traipsing into the hallowed ground of nonsense-writing (think Jabberwocky), just write write write it down. You’ll be amazed at the creativity you’re capable of!
3. “My First Time”
No, it’s not what you think. It’s a memory exercise, but it isn’t that kind of memory exercise. I want you to take your “Strawberry” piece and open it up. When was the first time you can remember tasting a strawberry? Grab another berry if you need to — smell it again, feel it again, taste it again — let your mind wander. Memories tend to be a bit like junior high girls — they pay more attention to you when you aren’t trying too hard to get their attention.
If you’re having trouble finding your first memory, don’t be too hard on yourself. Open up the assignment even further — do you have a specific memory about strawberries? Of any kind? The berries themselves, strawberry flavored chapstick, strawberry ice cream, strawberry shortcake, fruit salad, strawberry topping on your Dairy Queen sundae? Describe this event in detail. Try to focus your details, this time, into some type of story format. Craft a plot with which to frame your strawberry experience. Remember — a beginning, a middle, and an end.
4. “Down the Rabbit Hole”
Lewis Carroll (of Alice in Wonderland fame) is quoted as saying, “It’s a poor sort of memory that only works backwards.” Writing about the past can be emotionally draining. Take a break for a different kind of creativity. Today, write some memories about your future. I know, I know, I can hear you saying, “But this is Creative Nonfiction!” Well, tough. Keep an open mind. Sometimes playing with our hopes and dreams (or our complete nonsensical imaginings) can bring to mind things about ourselves we had completely forgotten.
For example, when I first tried this exercise, I wrote about my future home, in Oregon. I wrote about the two beautiful Paints (the horses that my daughter loves, not buckets of pigment) we will have in our corral, on our 10 acres of green, green land. By the time I was done with my forwards memory writing, I had a whole passel of recollections pop up, that I’d completely forgotten about. I remembered that I used to be terrified of horses. When I was a child, I would take a short cut, on the way home from school, through one of the pastures that used to be scattered throughout our neighborhood. One day, several of the horses (there were three, I think), began following me across the field. I felt my heart move quickly from an easy trot to a wild, gallumphing gallop. I picked up speed. So did the horses. By the time I made it to the far fence, I felt like the horses were right on my heels — like they were some strange hybrid of horse and grizzly bear — ready to eat me alive. Logical? I think not. But in my frightened child-mind, true, just the same. And from there, I was able to access several lost memories of times when I had been frightened, for various reasons, as a child.
5. “Mommy Dearest”
This exercise (for most people) will either be very difficult or very easy. Meaning you will either find yourself searching for memories about which to write, or sifting through more material than you feel you can order in any reasonably valuable fashion. You are going to write about your mother. But, here’s the kicker — you’re only allowed to write about her negative attributes. Don’t worry about being fair, or hurting her feelings; she never has to read this. The only thing I want you to worry about is being honest.
It’s not as easy as it sounds. When we write about people in our lives, the tendency (especially with our parents), is to try to understand their choices (especially their bad choices). I’m not saying that’s not a perfectly healthy attitude to have, when writing — I’m just suggesting that understanding is not the point of this exercise.
The point of this exercise is to write honestly about negative feelings or experiences. The key to completing this prompt successfully, is to think about the memories that you have like they are scenes in a movie. Describe the event in detail. Try try try to die to the emotion behind whatever memories you come up with. Don’t analyze anything except what you see, hear, smell, taste, feel (physically) in the moment of the memory.
By the way, the movie, Mommie Dearest, scared the crap out of me when I accidentally saw it, as a child. I still don’t use wire hangers – “NOOO… WIIIIRE… HANGARS!!! What’s wire hangers doing in this closet when I told you: NO WIRE HANGARS EVERRRR?!” I don’t think I’ll ever get that voice out of my head when I look at wire hangers. And, by the way, again, Mommie Dearest began as a memoir. Written by Christina Crawford, adopted daughter of Joan Crawford, it was very controversial – and, written in 1978, it was one of the first real “celebrity tell-all” books.
6. “June Cleaver”
With a name rather reminiscent (if you ask me) of Mommie Dearest, June Cleaver, of Leave it Beaver fame, was nothing, if not the polar opposite of Faye Dunaway’s, Joan Crawford. June Cleaver – ever patient and giving, baking and vacuuming in her dresses and heels – the wonder mom of the 50’s. Ahh, the good old days… .
Now, flip the last exercise on its head. Write only good memories of your mother. Use the same techniques you used in the last exercise – no judgment, no analysis. Simply write the scenes.
I know that this exercise may be as hard for some as the previous was for others, but I honestly believe that your writing will get stronger as you learn to craft the truth of the moment, detail by detail, and allow yourself to come back to add perspective and emotion at a later time. But don’t forget your senses – sight, sound, taste, touch and smell!