Saturday, April 28, 2007


Timelines show a summary of specific events. History books break down major events. News stations break down crimes or someone’s career using timelines. Some authors plot novels using timelines.

Try creating a timeline of your life. The format isn’t important. Use whatever method works for you and give yourself room to write. You can draw a line across a blank sheet of paper or use lined paper and skip lines between dates, or use whatever other method works best for you. On one end (or the top of the paper) write your birth date. Mark off five year increments until you reach your current age. In between each five year interval, write a milestone.

For instance at age five, I’d write, “began kindergarten.” At age nine, “mother left,” and so on. Record births, deaths, graduations, marriages, or whatever else you can remember. When you’re finished, you can fill in specifics like names of favorite songs, books, or movies. What did you wear back then? Did you have “big hair” or wear bell bottoms. Did you have a favorite sweater or pair of shoes?

Use this exercise in conjunction with any others. For instance, you might want to fill in the timeline with the soundtrack of your life or historic events. When you’ve run out of things to add to your timeline, step back from it. Take a walk. Do housework. Listen to music, watch TV, or anything else to divert your attention. When you return to the timeline, note what stands out. What memories surfaced? Spend time freewriting. Save your timeline, so you can fill in things as memories surface. Something else might stand out next time.

As always...have fun with it!

Sunday, April 22, 2007

The First Time...

As we get older our memories begin to fade, and we forget specific incidents. What does seem to stick with us are memories of our “firsts.” We remember them with sensory details. For instance, I remember my first day of school, the halls smelled like chalk and chicken noodle soup. I remember clutching a chunky pencil as I made letters on green manuscript paper. Now when I smell chicken noodle soup, I think of my first day of school.

Start a collection of “firsts.” Begin by listing as many “firsts” as you can think of. Don’t stop and think too hard. Do this quickly. Here’s a sample list to get you started:
• first day of school
• first friend
• first time you tasted pizza (or ice cream, sushi, or whatever else)
• first birthday party
• first date
• first kiss
• first funeral
• first time you saw blood
• first teacher
• first book you read
• first time you were scared/embarrassed
• first time you disagreed with your parents
• first time you left home
• first job
• first car

Spend ten or fifteen minutes freewriting about each. You may choose to do one or two a day instead of all in one sitting. Take a deep breath and let go. For a variation, make a “last” list. You can reverse the items in your “firsts” list. For instance, “last book I read,” “last job,” etc.
As always...have fun with it!

Friday, April 13, 2007

What's In Your Name?

Growing up, I always hated my name. I hated the sound of it, especially when my deaf mother called me. Her toneless uttering made my name sound like "retard." Classmates mispronounced it—sometimes on purpose. It was misspelled a lot: Pita, Reta, Reba. I asked my dad why he christened me with such a horrible name. He told me that he wanted to name me after one of his favorite starlets, Rita Hayworth. At the time I didn’t know who she was. I was infatuated with Shaun Cassidy and Parker Stevenson, and I was trying to train my hair to feather like Farrah Fawcett’s. Rita Hayworth meant nothing to me. Years later, when I did find out who Rita Hayworth was, I decided I must have been a big disappointment to my dad.

Through the years I tried to establish my own identity. Amongst my friends I tried out different names and nicknames—anything to get away from my horrible sounding real name. I dubbed myself with exotic sounding names. But alas, being glamorous or exotic was not in my future. I was destined to be a nerd, no matter what I called myself.

In my junior year of high school, I started using my middle name. My favorite cousin, Lou, criticized my name change. “Marie” sounded so common, not exotic like “Rita,” he said. My teachers were as resistant to my name change as Lou was, but mainly for the sake of consistency. To new people I introduced myself as “Marie.” Eventually my friends stopped correcting themselves, and my dad came around as well.

I looked up the meaning of “Rita.” It is a derivative of the Greek word, margaritos, which means “pearls.” Hmm. Greeks and pearls are exotic. Pearl has a nicer connotation than my middle name, which is a derivation of “Mary” which means “sea of bitterness.” Maybe it was better to have a name associated with jewels than to have one associated with the ill-fated Marie Antoinette.

Close your eyes for a few minutes and think about your own name. Then freewrite or cluster for fifteen minutes. Before beginning to write, ask questions. How did you get your name? Is there a story behind it? Was it passed through family generations? What does your name mean? Look it up in a baby name book or search it on the internet. Do you think your name is common or unusual? What famous people share your name? Try this exercise when you create story characters.

Here’s another exercise. Write all the letters of your name in a column, giving each letter its own line. Beside each letter, write the first word that pops into your mind beginning with that letter. Don’t linger too long. Don’t worry about the spelling or whether it’s a noun, verb, or adjective. If you get stuck, move on to the next one. Go back to it when you’ve finished the others. When you’ve finished, set aside the exercise for a few minutes. After you’re break, set your timer for ten or fifteen minutes. Now do a freewrite using as many of the words you’ve jotted. Use them in any order. This is a variation of a random prompt generator. Use this with any name or any word.

As always...have fun with it! Please feel free to share your name stories and/or freewrites!

Friday, April 6, 2007

Alternate Identities

In writing workshops I’ve often heard people say if they knew their family and friends never read their writing, it would be easier to write. Part of it comes from the fear of disappointment. Another reason is the fear of inadvertently hurting someone. Or they want to write things they normally wouldn’t write. Experiment with different genres. Or separate their “real life” identities from their writing identities.

French author Romain Gary had written over thirty books and had won numerous literary prizes when he began writing under the pseudonym Emile Ajar. As Emile Ajar he published four best selling novels. In his posthumously published memoir, he stated that the motive for using a pseudonym was he wanted “to be someone else.” Journalist Samuel Clemens wrote fiction as Mark Twain. The Bronte sisters originally published their novels under male pseudonyms. Dean Koontz published five gothic novels as Deanna Dwyer. Literary author Joyce Carol Oates writes mysteries as Rosamond Smith. Ray Bradbury used over ten pseudonyms. I knew a first grade teacher who wrote erotica under a pseudonym.

Suppose you wrote under a different identity. How would your writing change, if at all? Would you write the things you really want to say? Freewrite using the prompt, “What I really want to write about…”

Create a pseudonym. Or several. Use a baby names book, phone book, or whatever sources you need to generate a name. If you could change your name to anything at all, what would it be? Visualize your new name on a book cover, as a byline. For one week, write everything as your new identity. If you want, create a profile or history. You can be anything you want. For instance, if in “real life” you live in a cramped city apartment, your writing persona can live in a spacious farmhouse. You can raise afghan hounds or be an expert gazpacho maker. Be as silly or imaginative as you like. After a week, look back on your writing. How does it compare to your other writing? Has writing under a new identity freed you from censoring? Has your writing voice changed?

It’s up to you whether or not you keep your new writing persona. But if it helps, why not? I'd like to hear how this experience affected you. How did you decide on the name you used for your pseudonym?

Starting next week the articles and exercises will be geared toward mining writing ideas from your personal history.