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One way to write a personal narrative in creative nonfiction is to tell a story about a journey. All journeys have a starting point and destination. The journey usually begins with some question, which the central character desires to learn from the journey. Along the path, the character is a participant in a series of events, which impact his/her psyche. The character also faces setbacks and obstacles, encounters a crisis, participates in story that has climax, and ends with a resolution. The journey also provides the character with new insights or illuminations, which help to answer a nagging question. Often the central character experiences an epiphany or a lesson that you learned.
This is certainly true for the creative nonfiction book, ” Into the Wild,” a true story written by Jon Krakauer, about a young, idealistic man who abandons his possessions, gives away all of his $24,000 in a savings account, and then journeys across the United States, then to Alaska, where he dies by misadventure. It is a sad, true story of a journey about a naive man. Near death, dying from unintentional poisoning (He eat poison berries in an effort to prevent starvation), Christopher McCandless, the central character, realizes that “man cannot be an island unto himself.” Happiness must be shared.
Writing about a journey, a quest, or a pilgrimage is a popular form of creative nonfiction. Esteemed writer, E.B White, in his narrative a journey called “Walden”, shares a story about his trip to pay homage to Henry David Thoreau. (You can read it in Creative Nonfiction by Eileen Pollack) He writes about the trip by car, the surroundings at Walden pond, and personal reflections at Walden.
Author Elizabeth Gilbert wrote a bestselling book called “Eat, Pray, Love” in which she shares her journey to find herself after her marriage ends. She shares her reflections and describes the surroundings, adventures, new experiences, people she meets, cuisine, and culture while traveling to Italy, India, Indonesia.
Not only can a writer craft essays about a journey, the writer can also write entire books about a journey. Author Michael Krasny wrote about a spiritual quest in “Spiritual Envy: An Agnostic’s Quest.” Krasny narrates a life story about his struggles with faith, his ambivalence toward religious doctrine, and his desire to answer a variety of metaphysical questions, such as Does God exist?
In this article, I’ll explain how write a personal essay or literary journalism essay about a journey, quest, or pilgrimage from a creative nonfiction perspective. First, I’ll define the difference between a journey, quest, and pilgrimage. Then I’ll explain the elements of a story, followed by an explanation of the narrative arc or story structure. Finally, I’ll identify a few tools and tips for writing about a journey, quest, or narrative.
There are three ways to write about an adventure. First, you can write about a journey. A journey involves traveling to some place and experiencing some epiphany or a lesson that you learn.
Secondly, you can write about a quest. It is a journey in which you seek to find or discover something of value.
Finally, you can write about a pilgrimage. In this type of journey, you travel to some place to pay homage or show your respects to a religious place or religious person, or to uncover something of spiritual or moral significance.
A journey, quest, pilgrimage also includes setbacks and obstacles. For instance, if you are writing about a bike trip, you’d include the significant obstacles you faced, such as the horrendous traffic, rainy weather, bumpy roads. You’d also write about the setbacks you faced. Perhaps you got lost. Perhaps someone stole your wallet. Perhaps you fell off your bike and were injured. Perhaps you were forced to repair a flat tire in the rain.
A journey, quest, or pilgrimage also has a climax or turning point. For instance, the turning point in your bike trip could be achieving the destination and realizing you’d wasted your time. There is also a resolution to your journey. All unanswered questions are answered, and loose ends are tied up.
A journey, quest, or pilgrimage should also include some insight, illumination, or epiphany. Otherwise, readers will say to themselves: So what? What is the point of your story?
In Creative Nonfiction, author Eileen Pollack suggests that a journey, quest, or pilgrimage requires several elements:
- A question that the writer has a desire to answer
- A destination-where are you going?
- Motives for taking the journey.
- Observations and experiences as you journey
- Personal reflections, insights, illuminations, or an epiphany.
What is a Story?
Whether you are composing a narrative poem, short fiction, or some sort of journey based on real-life experience, the elements of a story are the same. A good story includes the following elements:
- Central character or protagonist. If you are writing a journey about yourself, you are the protagonist. Every central character has desires, wants, needs, goals to achieve.
- Conflict. The conflict can be within the character’s psyche or external, such as a conflict with another family member, a religious group, society.
- Plot. All stories require a series of related events in which the central character participates. As the character moves forward, attempting to achieve a particular goal, want, need, a series of related events unfold.
- Complication. A good story includes one or more setbacks or obstacles that prevent the central character from achieving a desired goal, need, want.
- Resolution. A good story requires that all unanswered questions are answered, the conflict is resolved, some sort of epiphany or lesson that is learned from the journey.
And so, when you write about a journey, quest, or pilgrimage, make sure to include character, plot, conflict, complication, and a resolution.
Narrative Arc or Story Structure
How do you organize or structure your story about a journey, quest, pilgrimage? Use the fictional technique of a “narrative arc” to structure you adventure. Writer Jack Hart, author of “Story Craft”, explains the narrative arc in his chapter on “Structure.” This narrative arc has five phases:
- Exposition. It is the first phase of the story. The writer provides a backdrop to the story, such as the setting. He introduces the background details of the story, main character, and inciting incident that starts the character on a journey. Sometimes the writer begins with a crisis instead of the inciting incident.
- Rising Action. It is the second phase of the story. A series of related events unfold in which the central character is a participant. These related events create dramatic tension. Often there is mystery and suspense. As the character takes the journey, he experiences one or more setbacks or obstacles, which make it more difficult to complete the journey. Sometimes, the writer shares background information as one or more flashbacks.
- Crisis. It resolves the complication. It includes the event just before the climax. The crisis takes the story to its main event or climax. It is the point in the story in which everything hangs in the balance. For instance, suppose you are writing about a journey to take a trip. You are at the airport, experiencing conflict about whether to hop on the plane or remain behind. This conflict creates a crisis, whether to begin the journey or not.
- Climax. (resolution) It is the main event of the story, and turning point in the story. It is the event with the most tension and drama. It leads to a resolution of conflict and crisis.
- Falling action (denouncement) The pace of the story slows, the drama subsides, unanswered questions are answered. Often the writer shares an epiphany or lesson that he has learned from the journey. Sometimes, the writer ends with a quote or final point. The reader knows that the story has reached its end.
Other Techniques of Creative Nonfiction
Your personal narrative about a journey should be written in scenes, summary, and personal reflection. When writing about significant events, write in scenes. A scene shows the reader what happened. It includes action, dialogue, setting, characterization, point of view, imagery.
To explain, use summary. It tells the reader what happened. Your true story about a journey also requires personal reflections. How did you feel? What did you learn? What insights came to you about the people and surroundings and the experience?
Include intimate Details. These are images and ideas only you know. They are images and ideas that reveal a truth about a person, place, event. Readers will not be able to imagine them unless you share them in your writing. In short, you are writing about the intimate details that capture the essence of the story or heart of the story. Intimate details are those that readers will not imagine without you writing the details in your story.
Use the inner point of view. You share what you see, feel, experience as you take the journey, quest, or pilgrimage. If you are writing about your own journey, use the first person point of view (“I”). If you are writing about someone else, use the third-person point of view (“he/she”).
Also include concrete and specific description, poetic devices of simile, metaphor, imagery.
If you are writing about someone else, you’ll be required to conduct research, such as interviewing, immersion, and fact-collection from the Library or Internet.
Your journey requires a theme. What does this mean? You’ll have to determine the meaning of your journey, quest, pilgrimage, and share it with readers.
Tips for Writing about a Spiritual Quest, Journey, Pilgrimage
Here are a few tips for writing about a journey, quest, or pilgrimage:
- Avoid using clichés and jargon. Write with fresh and original language.
- Begin with a question you want to answer, then take a journey to answer your question.
- Engage the reader by telling a true story or narrative about a spiritual journey, quest, pilgrimage. A story includes a beginning, middle, and end. A narrative includes elements of an inciting incident, setbacks or obstacles, climax or turning point, resolution, some insight or epiphany, a universal truth about the human condition.
- The best way to structure your story is to use the narrative arc. A story begins with an inciting incident, includes a personal motivation or desire to achieve some purpose, requires setbacks or obstacles, has a climax, turning point, and insight, lesson learned, or epiphany.
- Don’t proselytize, which means to attempt to convert others to your religious views and beliefs.
- Write with the purpose of informing, educating, entertaining the reader.
- Use both scene and summary. Craft scenes when writing about setbacks or obstacles and a climax. A scenes is like a scene in a movie. It includes setting (time, place, social context), dramatic action (something happens), dialogue (spoken words of significant people), intimate details (including details that the reader would not be able to visualize or expect to imagine), inner point of view( experiencing the word through the eyes of the person you are writing about) Use summary to explain, to condense, to compress. Summary means “to tell” or “to explain.”
- Use personal reflection-share your emotional truth. Share how the spiritual journey felt to you.
- Avoid self-centred writing, focusing on yourself. Unless you’re writing in a personal journal, creative nonfiction writing must be an unselfish activity. Otherwise, readers will stop reading. And so, seek to engage readers with the outside world—the journey itself, the quest itself, the pilgrimage itself.
- If you are serious about writing about a spiritual journey, read “Spiritual Envy: An Agnostics Quest by Michael Krasny.” His book illustrates how to write about the spiritual from a creative nonfiction perspective—with scene, summary, personal reflection. His memoir is a personal and philosophical journey in search of God, in search of spiritual meaning and purpose, in search of faith, religion, spirituality, supreme being he could believe in.
In writing about a journey, quest, pilgrimage, always keep in mind that you are telling a true story. As well, you purpose is to inform and educate readers about the journey itself. You must entertain your readers by using the fictional techniques of storytelling, such as character development, narrative, setting, and use poetic devices, such as simile and metaphor. You`ll also create scene, summary, and share personal reflection. Structure your story as a narrative arc. The journey, quest, pilgrimage should end with an epiphany or lesson learned.
For additional information on writing a personal narrative about a journey, read the following:
- Truth of the Matter: The Art and Craft of Creative Nonfiction by Dinty Moore
- Story Craft: The Complete Guide to Writing Narrative Nonfiction by Jack Hart
- Creative Nonfiction: A Guide to Form, Content, and Style by Eileen Pollack
- To Tell the Truth: Practise and Craft in Narrative Nonfiction by Connie D. Griffin
- Spiritual Envy: An Agnostic’s Quest by Michael Krasny
Conducting research is the part of the “nonfiction” aspect of writing creative nonfiction. It is one of the Five R’s of creative nonfiction, one of the essential components of writing personal essays, memoirs, and literary journalism. The amount of required research for a writing project depends on the form of creative nonfiction. Research involves collecting facts to increase understanding of a person, place, event, idea, experience, thing.
In this article, I’ll explain the purpose of research, identify the methods of research, and how to research your own life.
Purpose of Research
You carry out research to increase your understanding of a person, topic, idea. You also do research to see what else has been written on the topic that you are going to write about. You don’t want to duplicate what is already written. You can also do research to become a subject matter expert.
Research also allows you to verify facts. You want to be sure that what you written is true and accurate.
And research has another purpose: To stimulate our memories. Often when we investigate an experience or event, memories associated with the event rise into our minds from depths of unconsciousness.
If you intend to write a memoir, you’ll be required to complete extensive research into your own life — to recall significant details of people, places, events from your own past.
Facts from research can also be used by the writer to create metaphors or similes. Brenda Miller suggests this in her book, “Tell It Slant.”
Some forms of creative nonfiction require more research than other forms. For example, a personal essay about a canoe trip to a lake that resulted in an epiphany requires less research than a memoir. The canoe trip might only require you to consult your writing journal and to speak with the friend who accompanied you on the canoe trip, whereas a memoir will involve interviewing friends and family, visiting the library and public records offices, revisiting the places you frequented during the period of the memoir, and obtaining details about the popular culture of the time by conducting research with a Google search.
There are two drawbacks to doing research. First, the tsunami of facts that you collect can overwhelm, preventing you from writing. Secondly, research can result in procrastination. In other words, the task of researching a project often prevent you from writing the narrative.
Methods of Research
Immersion. You acquire an understanding by “living the experience.” Suppose you intend to write a story about baseball, but you’d never played this game before. You could increase your understanding by playing a few games of baseball. You would then use what you learned from the experience to write your piece of creative nonfiction.
Interviewing. A popular approach is to interview a subject matter expert, or talk to people who participated in the event or experience, or interview those who were a witnesses to the event, or interview those who knew the person you are writing about. An interview always requires a list of question to ask. These questions should be open-ended, requiring the person being interviewed to respond with more than a “yes” or “no.”
The Reference Library. The reference library contains a sea of information, including:
- Publications on microfilm, such as old newspapers
- Online catalogues to help you find facts
Be sure to ask the librarian for assistance.
The Internet. Begin by conducting a Google search, the most popular search engine. There is also Google Scholar, which you can use for scholarly searches. Then read and collect useful facts at reputable websites. For instance, suppose you want to learn more about modern and contemporary art, you could visit “The Art Story website at www.artstory.org. To help you find information, you can use the Search tool on the website. Not only can you read content on websites, but you can read blog postings. Many subject matter experts have their own blogs in which they post articles, commentaries, and so forth. And YouTube offers you information via video and photographs.
Public Records. Sometimes you’ll be require to verify facts. The public records is the place to fact check marriage licences, dates of birth, and death certificates.
Researching Your Own Life
Writing a personal essay often requires that you research your own life before writing. This is mandatory when writing a memoir. Research allows you to check the accuracy memories. Research enables you to recall details of the popular culture, as well as the social and economic and historical conditions of the life you lived in the past.
Research also enables you to mine your own memory, enabling you to recall people, places, events, experiences that have long been forgotten. Why? Researching a timeline or time period stimulates your memory. You can start with a timeline. For instance, do a Google search to find out what happened in 1980. The Google search results of the events of that year will enable you to recall memories of things that happened to you during that year
Besides using a timeline, there are many other ways to research your own life, including:
- Challenges, setbacks, obstacles. For instance, what is the biggest challenge you have faced in life? What is the saddest moment in your life?
- Moves, leaving home, first home, place where you lived after the divorce.
- Birthdays, anniversaries, graduations, marriages, deaths
- First experience, such as your first kiss, first new car, first speech, first job
- Achievements. What are your accomplishments?
- Legacy. What do you want to be remembered for?
- Revisit places of your childhood, adolescence, or adulthood
- Look over old photographs, read old diaries and journals and letters, leaf through old scrapbooks.
Author, Lois Daniel, has written a must-read text for anyone who desires to write personal narrative essays or a memoir. Her book is called, “How to Write Your Life Story.” She explains, provides tips, and suggestions on how you can tap into memory, and rediscover your favorite toys as a child, write about inventions that have significantly impacted you, accomplishments you are most proud of, happy and sad family events, favorite pets, friends and family who have passed through your life, and much more.
What sort of research will be required? The type of narrative determines what information/facts the writer provides the reader. (You Can’t Make this Stuff Up by Lee Gutkind)The key points to remember: creative nonfiction writers do research to increase their understanding of themselves and the world in which they live. And yet, too much research, a mountain of facts, can blow out the flame of creativity. And so, a writer ought to do only as much research as required to understand the topic, person, idea, he/she is write about.
Resources. For more information on how to increase your understanding by research, read the following:
- You Can’t Make this Stuff Up: The Complete Guide to Writing Creative Nonfiction from Memoir to Literary Journalism and Everything In Between by Lee Gutkind.
- To Tell the Truth: Practise and Craft in Narrative Nonfiction by Connie D. Griffin
- Tell It Slant: Creating, Refining, and Publishing Creative Nonfiction, Second Edition, by Brenda Miller and Suzanne Paola
- How to Write Your Own Life Story: The Classic Guide for the nonprofessional Writer by Lois Daniel
Writing creative nonfiction is about telling true stories. You can tell a story about yourself, crafting essays about personal experiences. You can also write about other people, places, and events in the world.
There are three categories of creative nonfiction: the personal essay, memoir, and creative nonfiction. Within these categories, there are several subgenres. For instance, if you want to write a personal essay, you can choose from personal narrative, opinion essay, meditation, or lyrical essay.
Creative nonfiction requires that you write true and factual narratives, not fiction. You’ll want to present the truth and facts in a compelling, entertaining, and memorable way so that others will be inspired to read your story. To write any of these forms of creative nonfiction, you have many techniques to choose from, such as scene, summary, personal reflection.
In this article, I’ll identify the toolbox of techniques that writers are expected to use when writing creative nonfiction.
Topic and Question. Author Eileen Pollack, in “Creative Nonfiction”, suggests that before writing, you ought to select a topic and then pose a question. She suggests that a question creates a focus and purpose for writing. For instance, suppose you recall a memory, ask yourself: What is so important about this memory? What did I learn from the personal experience? Why is it significant? Is there a universal truth? Or, suppose you wanted to write a meditative essay on “freedom.” You could start by posing a question to yourself: What is freedom to me?
Narrative Structure or Shape of a Story. There’s no single structure, nor is there a formula for writing creative nonfiction. Often your narrative takes shape as you write. Connie Griffin, in “To Tell the Truth”, writes that narrative structure is not imposed from the outside, but discovered from within the narrative, meaning that you discover the details of the story and its structure as you write. In creative nonfiction, there are five popular narrative structures or shapes:
- Narrative structure: Telling the story chronologically, from beginning to end.
- Braided Structure: Telling a story by weaving or combining two, sometimes three, narratives or stories.
- Collage: Using a thematic and segmented approach that combines a quotation or two, poem, scene, metaphor, simile, allusion, personification, image, vignette, anecdote, a short, short, true story, with an epiphany.
- Frame: Telling a story by opening with a particular scene or reflecting and closing with a particular scene or reflection.
- Narrative with Flashback: Telling a story using scene, summary, reflection, and flashbacks.
As well, the you can experiment with the narrative structure, resulting in a new structure or shape.
Distinctive Voice, Style, and Intimate Point of View. All good writers have a distinctive voice, which is the persona of the writer expressed on the age.
Dinty Moore, in “Truth of the Matter”, writes: “An author’s voice consists of many things, including word choice, sentence structure and rhythm, metaphor and imagery…perhaps humour or irony, and always the personality of the writer. Good writers also have a unique style. A writer’s style is his/her expression of persona on the page. It includes choice of diction, sentence variety, and tone, point of view, use of metaphor, and other literary devices. The tone of the writing itself is always friendly, conversational. Stories are often told using the first-person point of view.
Detail and Description. Creative writing is often a form of discovery. As you write, you recall the details, the memories, the images, the felt emotion, the deeper meaning. You’ll recall from memory significant, particular details and then writes them down. You’ll craft vivid descriptions with concrete, specific, and particular details. You don’t have to include every detail, only those that are significant or important. Often you’ll use sensory imagery, language that invokes the sense of sight, smell, taste, touch, or hearing. The purpose of including detail is to recreate the experience in the mind of the reader.
Scene and Summary. One of the most important techniques of creative nonfiction is writing in scenes. A scene recreates the experience of the writer for the reader. A scene evokes. To write a scene, you must show the reader what is happening. A scene often includes:
- Setting-time and place of the story
- Action-something happens.
- Dialogue-someone something not always
- Vivid description-concrete and specific details.
- Imagery-language that invokes the reader’s sense of sight, smell, taste, touch, hearing
- Point of View-first, second, third person.
- Figurative language, such as simile and metaphor.
- Beginning, middle, and ending-A scene has a beginning, middle, and end
Summary involves telling the reader what happened. Telling means to summarize and to compress, leaving out the details and descriptions. Telling is explaining.
You should create scenes of important events, such as for a setback and the turning point.
Scene and summary are used for all types of creative nonfiction.
Techniques of Fiction. You’ll also rely on the techniques of fiction to tell a true story, including:
- Setting-time and place and context, which provides the backdrop to the true story
- Narrative Arc ( inciting incident, conflict and setback, climax, epiphany, resolution)
- Point of View- first person “I”, Second Person “You”, third person “He/She”
- Character development- Developing character through action, dialogue, description
- Vivid Description-descriptions that are concrete and specific
- Use of imagery-literal imagery through description; figurative imagery with simile or metaphor
- Theme-the meaning of the story
The narrative arc is used to write a personal narrative essay, sometimes a memoir. The opinion essay, meditative essay, and collage essay don’t require a narrative. These sorts of essays tend to be structured around a theme.
Poetic Devices-Figurative Language. You’ll often use one or more of the following poetic devices to write creative nonfiction:
- Assonance and alliteration
Experienced Writers often use any of the above to write creative nonfiction. Simile and metaphor are the tools of choice.
Personal Reflection. In most types of creative nonfiction, you’ll share personal reflection with the reader. These can include:
- Personal thoughts and feelings
- Personal perspective
- stream of consciousness
Personal refection is required to write a memoir. It is also used to write a personal narrative, opinion, meditative, and lyrical essay. Personal reflection can also be incorporated into literary journalism.
Word Choice/Diction. Check to see that you use language in a fresh and original way,making note of connotation, the implied meaning of the word. As well, selecting words with the best meaning. Meaning refers to diction. Avoid using clichés and jargon.
Sentence Variety (Length and structure). Use short and long, and a variety of syntax to create a personal essay, memoir, or literary journalism. Sentence variety includes:
- Intentional Fragment. e.g. A pen. Pad of paper. Time, lots of time. Experimentation. A creative mind. These are the requirements of creative writing.
- Simple, compound, complex, compound-complex sentences.
- Parallel structure in sentences. E.g. I require a pen, pad of paper, spare time, experimentation, and a creative mind, to write creatively, to write poetry, to write fiction, to write a personal essay, to write anything.
- Declarative (statement of fact), Interrogative (ask a question), exclamatory (emphatic) sentences
- Inverted sentence. E.g. The book of poetry he wrote…The film, the script, the special effects, the story, I enjoyed.
- Lose sentence and periodic sentences. When writing a periodic sentence, the main idea and clause are at the end of the sentence. For a lose sentence, the main idea and independent clause are at the beginning of the sentence.
Lyrical Language. Sometimes a writer will use a lyrical style to express emotion and evoke emotion in the reader. This is often the case when writing a lyrical essay. The writing style is based on the following:
- Repetition of words, phrases, clauses
- Parallel Structure
- Rhyme, both rhyme and internal rhyme
- Alliteration and Assonance
- Sensory Imagery
For additional information on any of these techniques, read the following:
- Truth of the Matter: The Art and Craft of Creative Nonfiction by Dinty Moore
- Story Craft: The Complete Guide to Writing Narrative Nonfiction by Jack Hart
- Creative Nonfiction: A Guide to Form, Content, and Style by Eileen Pollack
- To Tell the Truth: Practise and Craft in Narrative Nonfiction by Connie D. Griffin
By Dave Hood
How do you find material to write creatively about? You must open the door, peer into the basement, dust off long forgotten memories of childhood, turning points, achievements, and so forth. These memories of experience are the pillars of the personal narrative essay, the memoir, the autobiography, and biography. And when you think about it, memories plays a vital role in all creative writing, whether a poem, short story, creative nonfiction: When the present moment of time passes, it becomes a memory, a word picture.
In this article, I’ll explain how to tap into your memories and how to write about them in creative nonfiction.
What is the Importance of Memory?
“Memory has been called the ultimate mythmaker, continually seeking meaning in the random and often unfathomable events in our lives.” (Tell It Slant)
Memory also constructs the self– who you are. The writer defines his or her sense of self from memories of life-achievements, misfortunes, sad times, charming occasions, and much more. Every life experience becomes a memory, which molds and shapes the sense of self. And the creative writer writes about self through the forms of personal essay, memoir, and autobiography.
Memories become fragmented in our minds, which are often filled with many thoughts, images of word pictures, feelings, sensory experiences. We must make order out of this chaos of memory. Writing is a way to do this.
A significant memory can be dredged up from the bottom of the unconscious mind by countless things, such as music, a found object, photography, toy, quotation, name of a place, or bumping into a long forgotten friend while traveling. For instance, ask yourself the following: What was your favorite toy as a child? Instantly, you will call memories of your childhood? Perhaps you enjoyed playing with a Barbie doll, Hot Wheels, the Cabbage Patch doll. You can use your favorite toys, these objects, as writing prompts, to tap into memories filed away in your mind.
And so, your memories are the foundation of all creative writing.
The Five Senses
We experience memories through our five senses— sight, smell, taste, touch, and hearing. Each of these senses can be used by the writer to evoke memories to write about.
Our sense of smell is automatic. Some smells we enjoy. Others smells are detestable. For instance, the scent of some perfume can be erotic, but the stench of rotting garbage can make a person want to vomit. To write about memories of smell, ask yourself: What smells do you enjoy? Why? Then write about them. What smells do you loath? Write about them.
Our sense of taste is often acquired. Food provides immediate gratification, fills our stomachs when we’re hungry, meets a need for comfort. The taste of food evokes all sorts of memories. To write about taste, ask yourself: What foods do I enjoy: Why? Write about them. Then ask yourself : what tastes awful? Write about it.
The sense of sound is a powerful tool for mining your memory. For instance, hearing a love song on the car radio as you drive to work can conjure up memories of a love that died, or a childhood memory, or a happy occasion. We hear sounds everywhere: Strolling along the street, we hear honking horns, roadside construction, the roar of the public bus. At home, with the window open, we hear the birds singing, the leaves rustling, the rain drumming on the concrete tiles on the porch. To write about sound, ask yourself , what sounds do you enjoy? Why. Write about them.
The sense of touch also evokes memories. We all desire touch. It is a human need. That is why sex is so important to humanity–as it expresses love and the desire to be touched in erotic ways. The sense of touch also allows us to do everything we take for granted, like walking, picking something up, lying down. Without our sense of touch, we would become disoriented in our surroundings. Sometimes touch can cause pain. Other times, it can arouse sensual desires. To write about touch, ask yourself: What are the most painful memories of physical pain, then write about them. Ask yourself, what are your most pleasant memories? Write about them.
The sense of sight is the most powerful of our senses. We see memories in our mind. They are word pictures, which we play over and over. Some are painful, sad, distressing. Others are pleasant. The mind stores these short film clips of memory in the unconscious mind. To write about them, you must get in touch with them. Sometimes an old photograph can stir your memory. Other times, an old show on television can evoke memories. There are countless things that can trigger memories of sight. To write about memory, ask yourself, What is the worst thing you have ever seen? Then write about it. Then ask yourself, what is the most beautiful thing you have seen? Write about it.
What Memories to Write About?
Author Louis Daniel, who has written a wonderful book called “How to Write Your Own Life Story”, explains how to dive into the deep-sea of your memory, find treasures to write about. Here are a few suggestions from her book that you can use as writing prompts to craft a personal essay or a memoir:
- First experiences, like your first love, first car, first sex, first job. Write about first experiences that were memorable.
- Achievement, such as graduation, awards, running a marathon. Write about those things you are proud of.
- Turning points, like the death of a parent, job loss, illness, break up of a marriage. Write about experiences that changed you forever.
- Inventions, like the iPod, computer, Internet, dishwasher, VCR player. Write about technologies had an impact on your life.
- Family traditions, such as birthdays, holidays, vacations, anniversaries. Write about those experiences that had an impact.
Tools for Mining Your Memories?
There are many ways to mine your memory. I will discuss a few.
The easiest way to tap into your memory is to use a writing prompt. There are many. For instance, find an old photograph of someone important in your life, then begin writing about that person, asking yourself, what memories pop into your mind.
Other writing prompts include brief encounters, favorite books and movies and music, diaries, newspaper articles, old toys, a diary, a wedding dress, or any other object that has been part of your life.
Author Judy Reeves has written a splendid book that will enable you to mine your memory. The book is called “A Writer’s Book of Days: A Spirited Companion & Living Muse for the Writing Life. This book provides countless ways to tap into your memory–writing prompts, exercises, ways to find images and inspiration. For instance, she suggests writing about “what makes you laugh?” To write about laughter and humour, ask yourself: What are the funniest moments in your life? Who are the funniest people in your life? Who are those who have no humour? Write about them.
Another way to get in touch with your memories is by freewriting. Here’s how: Opening your notebook and write down the details of significant memories that pass into your mind. Write about anything that passes into your conscious mind. That is why it’s called freewriting. Freewriting will open the door to your unconscious mind, bringing forth memories long forgotten. As you remember these details, other memories will appear in your mind. Freewriting is like knocking over the dominos: After the first domino falls, others fall over.
Another tool is to create a map of your neighborhood–the school, shape of the street, neighbor’s houses, the park. Then fill in the details of your friend’s, your neighbors, the place you played football or soccer or baseball as a kid. As you fill in the map of the neighborhood with details, write about them in detail.
A powerful tool for mining your memory is the time line. Essentially, you take a date, perhaps 1969, and then ask yourself, what important events happened that year? Where were you? What were you doing? How did you feel when you heard or saw the important events of history? For instance, where were you when you heard the news that John Lennon died or that terrorists had crashed a plane into the twin towers?
Tools for Writing About Memory
Your memory provides material for writing creative nonfiction, such as a personal narrative essay or a memoir. When you write about memories, you must share the details of the experience with your reader . You could simply tell your reader what happened. But this is dull. Readers want to be entertained. To write about memories, you want to create order from chaos, and so there must be some significance in the memory, such as a lesson learned, and a universal truth that appeals to or is experienced by all of humanity.
When writing about memory, you put into use the tools of fiction and poetry. Here are a few ways to delight your readers with your memories expressed as personal narratives:
- Show, don’t tell your reader. The best way to show your reader a memory is to make it vivid with details and concrete and specific descriptions.
- When writing about memories use associations, such as the old man smelled like an open can of beer. The best way is to use similes and metaphors to make the abstract concrete.
- Use sensory images–word pictures that describe memories of sight, taste, touch, smell, hearing.
- Write vivid descriptions.
Along with knowing how to write creatively, the ability to mine your memories for significant materials is one of the most important tools you have for constructing memorable prose. And if you are going to write a personal narrative essay or memoir, being able to open the door to the basement of your memory and turning on the light to see what’s stored away is paramount.
In summary, creative nonfiction is based on memory, and so you are required to dust off memories and then write about them in a way that is entertaining. That is why you must apply similes and metaphors and vivid descriptions to your memories. Don’t tell the reader about a memory! Show your reader by using these poetic and fiction techniques, especially by painting your writing with vivid details and concrete and specific descriptions.
Freewriting, using writing prompts, reading ” How to Write Your Life Story”, using a time line—these are useful techniques to find material in your mind to craft creative nonfiction.
To find out more about the tools for mining your memories and writing about these memories, I suggest you read the following:
- How to Write About Your Own Life Story by Louis Daniel
- A Writer’s Book of Days by Judy Reeves
- Writing Life Stories by Bill Roorbach
- Tell It Slant by Brenda Miller and Suzanne Paola
By Dave Hood
Why write about place or include setting in a piece of creative nonfiction writing? There are several reasons: Setting or place creates a backdrop for your true story. It can also create a mood or atmosphere for the story. Sometimes, place can be an antagonist for the story. It provides context—-telling the reader where the story takes place.
As well, one of the most important techniques for creative writing is to write in scenes. A scene in creative nonfiction is like a scene from a film. The scene includes vivid descriptions, dialogue, action, and a setting. The setting identifies the place where the scene and true story takes place.
Place is also part of our genetic code. Most people seek the comfort and familiarity of a safe place.
And yet, according to Brenda Miller and Susanne Paola, who are the authors of the marvelous text ‘ Tell It Slant: Creating, Refining, and Publishing Creative Nonfiction’, those who write writer creative nonfiction often overlook writing about the place where the story takes place.
In this article, I’ll explain what types of places you can write about and how to write about them.
Ask the Right Questions
So, let’s get started. How do you begin to write about place? You begin by to asking a few important questions, and then you answering them. Here are the questions you can writea about:
- What does the place represent?
- What is the symbolism of the place?
- What is the significance for you?
- What are the physical characteristics of the place? What does it look like? Describe the place?
- What memories are evoked by a particular place?
- How do you feel about the place? Do you like it? Why or why not?
You can begin by look around you. Describe the interior and exterior of the place that is your home, your neighborhood, your town, or city. In other words, write about the physical attributes or characteristics of the place. What are the associations? For instance, the house where I am smells disgusting like an ash tray filled with cigarettes…Or I live in a house that’s like a prison where my spouse gives orders as if she’s the warden. My elderly mother sits in her chair sadly reminiscing about the past like a person grieving the death of a loved one.
Showing Readers the Place
When writing about place, you must show the reader. What does this mean? Showing the reader requires you to write vivid descriptions, use sensory imagery, deploy memorable similes and metaphors to describe a particular place. It is not about telling the reader about the place, which is nothing more than a summary of the facts as you see them.
So, you show readers a place by including concrete and specific details. You can also include vivid descriptions that are of significance . You don’t have to include all the details or descriptions–only those that have significance to yourself and your readers. To write descriptions of place, you can also use sensory imagery, language that appeal to the sense of smell, taste, sight, touch, and hearing.
Writing with similes and metaphor will also create an entertaining description of place. For instance, the house looked like the city dump…. the shadows of the skyscrapers ….
Places to Write About
What places can you write about? There are several.
Write about Home, the place called home. What is home to you? What are your memories of home? Life as a child growing up. Your life now. What did you celebrate? What holidays you took? What milestones or turning points were experienced in a particular place? Describe the physical characteristics, the mental associations, significance, meaning, and your feelings about place.
City Life or Rural Life
Write about city life. What do you like about living in the city? What do you dislike? Describe using simile, metaphor, vivid descriptions.
Write about rural life, such as a small town. What do you like about living in a small town? What do you dislike? Describe using simile, metaphor, vivid descriptions. Include the significant physical attributes of the place.
Write about nature, such as the wild life, woods, rivers, mountains, birds, animals,fish, insects, other mammals of the habitat. Describe the physical characteristics, the mental associations, significance, meaning, and your feelings about place. Observe nature, react to it, write about it. Does it transform you in any way? Write using personification to make the nonhuman personal, recognizable, understandable.
Place of Work
Write about the place where you work. Describe its physical characteristics. Describe it in terms of sensory imagery, simile, metaphor, and particular and significant details. What are your feelings about the workplace? What do you like or dislike about your workplace? What does it represent? A paycheque, your purpose in life, your meaning to live. Or is the place of work just a means to an end, the end being leisure time or the time to follow your bliss.
Write about travel, such as a trip, quest, pilgrimage, or journey. What places have you travelled to? Describe the physical characteristics, the mental associations, significance, meaning, and your feelings about place. Don’t write as though you are creating a travel brochure, transcribing your trip. This is cliché. Include specific details and the significance to you. According to Tell IT Slant, “Successful travel writing mediates between two poles: the individual physical things it describes, on the other hand, the larger theme “about” on the other. That is the particular and the universal.”
Write about the environment, which is a popular topic–air and water pollution, global warming, overpopulation, desertification, destruction of the natural habitat. How does the environment in which you live impact your mind, body, soul? Write about the issues or topics making news. Write about green peace . Write about the role of an environmentalist. Write about the how the government protects a particular place, such as the forest, sea, historic place. Write about how industrialization continues to erode place.
Witness to the World
You are a human being, living in a particular place within the larger global village. Look out to the world, beyond the world in which you live. What do you see, hear, smell, taste about the world? What is making news in the world related to place? Write about it. What are the topics on the minds of the collective consciousness related to place? Write about them. How has the place called the global village been changed or transformed? Write about technology and its impact on place–the smart phone, Internet, tablet, and so forth.
Other Things to Consider
You can also write about place in terms of its culture, language, cuisine, people, customs and traditions, religion, superstitions, norms, rituals, taboos, moral values, and the history of place.
To conclude, there are many places to write about. When you write about place, show the reader with vivid descriptions, physical details, imagery, simile, metaphors. Also include your own perspective of place–your thoughts feelings, likes and dislikes. Always ask important questions about a particular place: What is the meaning of place? What is the significance? What does the place represent to you? Share your answers with the reader. And remember: we all seek places of meaning, comfort, familiarity. But many of us are also curious–and want to explore the world beyond.
- Tell it Slant: Creating, Refining, and Publishing Creative Nonfiction by Brenda Miller and Suzanne Paola
- Telling True Stories, edited by Mark Kramer and Wendy Call
- Creative Nonfiction: A Guide to Form, Content, and Style by Eileen Pollack
The literary journalistic essay requires that the writer gather facts that are external to his/her own life. For instance, suppose the writer is writing an article that took place in 2000. To give the story context, a specific mood, and to make it more believable, the writer could incorporate important facts of that year, such as the top-selling books, popular songs and movies, and significant events. Where would the writer go to find this information? How would the writer gather this information? This article answers these questions.
Before writing the creative nonfiction piece, the writer needs to determine what information he/she needs and where to find this information. To gather information, the writer has several methods:
- Library. The writer can conduct research by reading and taking notes from books, magazines, articles, and microfilm.
- Internet. The writer can conduct research by using Google, the most popular search engine in the world. Not only can the writer discover what has been written, he/she can also find leads to new sources of information, such as subject matter experts. And the writer can locate facts and details for the essay.
- Public Records. Property records will tell writer what properties a person owned. Criminal records will tell the writer whether a person has been charged with a crime and what crime. Court records will tell the writer about marriage licenses, divorce, name changes, criminal records.
- Private Records. Diaries, personal journals, family videos, Facebook, and other social networking sites can be good sources of factual information.
- Immersion. The writer can become a participant in the story. For instance, before writing Paper Lion, writer George Plimpton joined the training camp of the 1963 Detroit Lions on a tryout basis, so that he could write a creative nonfiction book about NFL football. Suppose the writer wanted to write about hockey, the best way to start would be to put on the equipment and participate in a practise or scrimmage. The experience would provide the writer with a sense of how the game is played and what it feels like to play.
- Interview. To write a literary journalistic essay, the writer will need quotes and from subject matter experts, eye witnesses, or people who took part in the story. To obtain this information, the writer can conduct an interview. To do this, the writer needs a pen and note pad, or a tape recorder. The writer also needs to prepare for the interview. He/she should have a list of prepared questions to ask.
- Travel. The writer’s goal is to gather not just any facts, but facts that will be interesting, surprising, and curious to the reader. To write a good creative nonfiction piece, the writer will need to recreate the scene. The scene creates a context and mood for the story. To gather the facts, the writer will need to revisit the place. This is especially true for travel writing. Often, the writer will need to play the role of the tourist. Sometimes the writer will need to travel to visit the location where the event or experience took place, to get a feel for the place. Or the writer might need to conduct an interview with a person who is living in another city or town.
- Observation. Sometimes the writer can observe the story. For instance, suppose the writer was gathering information about the joys of cooking. He/she could observe a chef in his kitchen. Suppose the writer wanted to write about film making. The best way would be to observe the director on the setting, making a film. While observing the experience or events, the writer can make notes or record his/her thoughts in a tape recorder.
- Reading. A good writer is continuously conducting research by reading widely and deeply for next topic. By reading biographies, essays, articles, newspapers, the writer can discover and gather information for the next story. A good creative nonfiction writer is always reading about different subjects and topics. A good writer is always learning, and reading enables the writer to learn new things.
Creative nonfiction is the literature of fact. The writer will need to gather the facts by conducting research. The type of research the writer will need to complete depends on the types of facts the writer requires. The writer will often need to use different methods of research. The writer needs to gather facts that make the true story believable, interesting, and surprising.
For more information, you can read the chapter on “Finding the Facts” in Writing Life Stories by Bill Roorbach.
If you have any questions or comments, please post them to this blog, or you can send an email to me at firstname.lastname@example.org .