By Lyssa Tall Anolik
Summer writing doldrums
Are you more interested in lying on a lawn chair and watching the clouds float by than sitting at your desk, trying to reshape the same scene for the umpteenth time? If so, you’re not alone! Personally, I have a hard time editing in August, when the weather is at its finest here in Portland. I’d rather grab my notebook and get out of the house – to a park, on a camping trip, or road-tripping. This month, in honor of the lazy dog days of summer, I’m taking a break from writing about craft elements. Instead, I’ll share some writing prompts and exercises you can take outside as you explore or just laze around in that lawn chair and watch the world go by.
Writing from now
Memoir isn’t only writing about the past; it includes what’s happening right now, which, of course, will shortly become the past. I suggest taking a notebook wherever you go, so you can capture inspiration anywhere. Watch people on the street, in a park, or at a cafe and practice observing and writing down their mannerisms, walking style, and facial expressions. When you return to editing characters in your writing later, this will help you build a vocabulary.
If you’re hanging out in one place for a while – a city park, a good sitting log along a hiking trail, or a bench in a museum in front of an inspiring painting or artifact – pull out your notebook and use that place as your prompt. Freewrite for 10-20 minutes. Allow yourself to experience and record all the sensory details of that place. Let your mind and pen wander into a deeper experience of yourself in that place. Then let those freewrites marinate in your notebook for a few months. Look at them later – in the fall or winter – and see if there’s something to develop. Some of my own favorite essays have emerged from this exercise.
A tourist in your own life
Sometimes, when traveling or moving around, you may not have time to sit and luxuriate in a freewrite, but it’s still helpful to keep a record of where you go and what you’ve experienced, for fun or for possible future writing projects. I keep a journal of the places I visit on my summer wanderings, whether it’s around the block, to a historic home or on a camping or road trip. I invite you to do the same.
Here are some ideas about what to include:
In each entry, record the date and place/s you visited. Jot down notes about what you saw/did there. What moved you in some way – a juggler in a funny hat, a raven tilting its head to look at you, a bend in the road or the river? You needn’t include every detail, just a few broad strokes and selective shading to sketch an outline of the experience. These details will jog your memory later. When you have time, you can go back to your journal and pick a place or moment you’d like to write more about, then use one of those details as a prompt.
The number one thing to remember: Have fun! Give yourself a vacation – even a mini-vacation – from your works in progress and seek outside inspiration to stoke the fires.
This is VoiceCatcher’s ninth article in a series by writing coach and teacher, Lyssa Tall Anolik. If you ever wanted to write a memoir, here’s the perfect place to start. Check in every month for Lyssa’s practical tips on telling your story.
Lyssa Tall Anolik received her MFA in Writing (Creative Nonfiction) from Vermont College. She coaches writers and teaches memoir in Portland. Her personal essays and poetry have appeared in Drash: Northwest Mosaic, The Wild, VoiceCatcher3 and 4, EarthSpeak and other journals. Lyssa is a founding member of The Writers Next Door.