Let’s do this exercise together now. Don’t skip ahead or say you’ll decide whether to do it after you’ve read the instructions, but get several sheets of paper and a ball-point pen and follow the directions as I give them to you. We learn by doing, not just by “understanding.” A prerequisite of writing is to tell your internal, critical editor–the left side of your brain–to back off, give your imagination room. Relinquish “control” to the directions of the exercise. Don’t think about writing, or about being original, meaningful or clever…just write.
Instructions—Guided Reaction Exercise (Part A) Recall a serious incident of a personal nature that has happened to you and imagine it has just taken place. (Examples: you’re coming from the funeral of a close friend or your child has been caught shoplifting, your brother or sister tells you they’re getting a divorce, you’ve been turned down for a promotion you were counting on or you’ve just been fired. This should be something that changes your perspective on the world, affects the way you think, talk and act, at least for a while).
1. In this writing exercise you are to communicate the feeling of that incident without directly saying what the incident is. Take twenty seconds before you begin and identify something similar to the examples in its impact on your life. Now try to once again feel the emotion you did at that time this happened. This is what you are to write directly about. On paper describe your actions as, alone, you enter a library, grocery store, bank, airport, restaurant or other public place. Have a specific, real location in mind. Tell what you see. What details do you notice feeling this particularly strong emotion? For example, if I’m in a restaurant and in a good mood I might notice a family having breakfast and enjoy watching the kids throwing food on the floor. However, if I’m feeling depressed I’d probably see the stains on the menu or be impatient that the wait-people are talking together in the corner instead of taking my order. In your location, what do you notice? How do the people who work there react to you? In a minute I want you to act this out on paper. First, feel the emotion that you have identified and think about the location you’re going to describe. Second, read the two examples below. Third, write for fifteen minutes. Then, stop.
Example 1: I walk through the automatic doors into Woodman’s produce department. The carts are stuck together, and I pull again and again trying to get one free of the long silver line. I just want the damn shopping done. I notice a cart a few feet away, unstuck, alone. I grab it and head for the lettuce. The usual clatter of store sounds seems muted. The glare of florescent lights reflects off of mountains of oranges and piles of green and red apples. The lettuce is brown around the edges. Wilted. The cart wheel sticks as I try to turn left toward the carrots. Mary
There’s a definite mood here. We don’t know what caused it but we do sense this is a person who is not enjoying doing her shopping on this day.
Example 2: I walk down to Trio for some breakfast. I grab a Chicago Tribune from the kiosk outside. I am trying to go through the motions of a normal Sunday. At the counter I turn my cup over to signal for coffee and think of the half-coffee/half-milk I used to drink as a child. I look around the diner. There are only couples–two, sedate, maroon-haired punks; a pair of animated, purple-haired grandmas. I focus on an older couple sipping their coffee. They’re touching hands and talking. I realize how lucky they are…and hope they do, too. Mary Nelll Murphy
Here is a single person in a world of couples. But why does she feel this so strongly on this particular day? We don’t know. Now, check your watch and write “un-critically” for fifteen minutes. Go on to the next paragraph only when you’re done.
2. Now that you are warmed up, we are going to add a little more to what you have already written. The emotion you are expressing indirectly, probably arose from an incident that involved another person. I want you to think about him or her and recount a memory of that person from a time before the incident. Perhaps something in your description of the public place brings this memory to the forefront of your mind. What is it? Go into this flashback as if it were happening in the present. Give the setting where the memory takes place, a season of the year, smells and sounds. Describe what the person in your memory is doing and the characteristic manner in which he or she would be doing it. Read the next example–which is a continuation of the first writer’s piece–and then write on your paper for five minutes before reading further. (These examples, by the way, were written by people doing this exercise, just as you are doing it now.)
Example 1 (cont.): In the meat department, mounds of plastic-wrapped red hamburger packaged for large family gatherings remind me of Al standing at his grill last summer. He’s in his swim trunks and a T-shirt, the “Wisconsin” one he bought once when he was out here visiting. The tumbler of bourbon in his left hand is half-empty. He’s telling me about parachuting into Italy. He’s holding a spatula in his right hand and every once in a while he uses it to flip a burger or mash one down. The juice sizzles and sighs as it hits the hot coals. Mary
Take five minutes and write your flashback.