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Writing Prompt: Letting Go, Holding On

29 November, 2013
It's time to stop holding on so tightly

Flickr. Photo credit: Tatiana P.

˜Henry Ellis, psychologist

This quote works well as a writing prompt, both for fiction or nonfiction.

Perhaps it is because we have all experienced bouts of letting go and holding on in terms of issues and beliefs, likes and dislikes, in our relationships, activities and passions.

Sometimes the outcome of holding on or letting go is positive. Sometimes it is not. If the holding on or letting go is a deliberate decision, we may be clear about our rationale. In another situation, years may go by before we understand or perhaps acknowledge our choice. In some cases, the choice remains a puzzle, with no answer forthcoming.

 Fine mingling suggests that the good life consists of balancing: Don’t let go of too much; don’t hold on beyond what is realistic. But in writing, things are different. It is the imbalanceof a character, a situation—that attracts us as readers and viewers and keeps us involved.

General writing starters

Explore the concepts of  letting go and/or  holding on. See where your creative mind takes you. Suggestions:

  • Freewrite for 10 minutes or more, letting your mind play with one or both terms. Don’t restrict yourself. Write down whatever comes up, no matter how odd.
  • Brainstorm about possible ideas for a story or article. What was or could be let go? Held onto?
    A person? A memory? An activity? An emotion? An object? What pluses and minuses are involved?
  • Develop a scene, imagined or real, about one or both elements. What happens and why? Who is affected? What’s the outcome?
  • Consider a specific person, incident, or place—past or present, real or imaginary—that is linked in some way to letting go or holding on. Consider other elements that may be driving the action, such as ambition, responsibility, fate, pain.
  • Choose a particular person, incident or place—past or present, real or imaginary—that for you embodies letting go or holding on. Is the outcome positive, negative, or mixed? Why? Does anything unexpected eventuate? If so, how does this affect things?

More detail

Flesh out any interesting results by considering these questions:

  • Who or what is involved?
  • What’s so special about this particular act of letting go or holding on?
  • What’s the motivation?
  • Setting? Occasion? Location?
  • Does it take place in the present, past or future? Time period? Duration?
  • Outcome?
  • What is the dominant mood, e.g., comical, bittersweet, nostalgic, creepy?

For life writing

If you are drawing on your own life for this prompt,  here are some additional questions.

  • What have I let go of or held onto in the past? Why? What has been the outcome? Was it my choice?
  • At this point, what could I let go of? Hold onto? Why? What would possibly change as a result?
  • Have I ever made an exchange? Letting go in some way in order to achieve a holding on in another way? Or the opposite, choosing to hold on to achieve a letting go?
    The outcome? If it was some time ago, what do I think about it now?
    At this point in my life, or in the future, what would make me consider an exchange? What could be a possible or probable outcome?
  • Do I tend to let go more than I hold on? Or the opposite? What’s that all about? What is the effect on me? On others?

Reading and Writing Culture

20 November, 2013

Storytelling with shadow puppets (Wiki Commons)

 We seldom realize . . . that our most private thoughts and emotions are not actually our own. For we think in terms of languages and images which we did not invent, but which were given to us by our society. 

˜Alan Watts

The power of our cultural lens

The term cultural lens refers to our culture-based perspective, which helps us make sense of what we experience, both directly and indirectly, e.g.,  via movies, books, computer games.

The above quote identifies culture’s strong effect on writers and their material. How easily readers connect with our writing depends in part on the extent that their cultural lens matches ours.   

Cultural content 

Cultural difference between writers and their readers or viewers can be a minefield.  Our cultural perspective leads us to accept  one fictive world as intimately familiar, another as more distant, and another as  strange, even incomprehensible. I once read a non-western whodunnit, where the baddie’s  modus operandi  turned out to be voodoo. It was presented as a plausible explanation. But because voodoo is beyond my mental schema about what is realistic in my culture, I found the story unsatisfying. 

Humour writer, Garrison Keillor, drew on his Midwestern background to write stories about the mythical Minnesota town of Lake Wobegon.  I found his tales delightful— and familiar. Having grown up in the Midwest, I understood his characters’ ways of thinking, talking and acting. These ways  were in my enculturated blood. His stories were  also popular in Australia, presented on the radio show, Prairie Home Companion. But because of my cultural background, I picked up more nuances and references than most Aussie listeners. 

Our cultural lens can affect a number of writing choices:  setting, plot, characters. We can choose elements that fit our culture’s familiar social ‘rules’ and values. We draw on what’s familiar in our culture or sub-culture when we select story elements such cause and effect, relevant actions, and characters’ speech patterns and non-verbal communication.  

Or we can do the reverse, consciously subverting our culture’s norms. For example, we may develop characters as ones who do  not follow the usual cultural blueprint  in terms of their gender, age, education, or profession. 

When we watch a film or read a book from a culture alien to our own, we may feel lost. Even if we can follow the what of the story—its action—we may  find it difficult know the why  that underpins and makes sense of the action. For anyone interested in such cultural differences in storytelling, I recommend the essay,  Shakespeare in the Bush. An anthropologist relates the story of  Hamlet to a group of African tribal elders. Using their cultural lens, they provide  an enchantingly different interpretation. 

Tell not show? Show not tell?

Culture also affects less obvious writing choices. One is the amount of telling. In modern western culture, writers are often instructed to show, don’t tell.  Rather than telling readers what a character feels—Mary was angry—it is considered better to give an action:   Mary slammed the door so hard the glass panel shattered. 

But the telling taboo is not universal. In a culture with a rich oral tradition, written stories may focus on telling. Actions may be surrounded, even overwhelmed, by commentary, admonishment, foreshadowing, interpretation.

The next time you dig into another culture as a reader or viewer, consider the cultural forces at work. Doing so may give you a new perspective on your own writing, plus some new ideas to play with.

Bohannan, Laura. Shakespeare in the Bush. Accessed 20 Nov 2013. 

© Marsha Durham, WritingCompanion blog.

The Joy of Not Saving but Writing

8 November, 2013

blank journal.jpb

Do you have a collection of blank writing journals? Are they s00o beautiful that you have never written in them?

While cleaning out my filing cabinet today, I came across a forgotten book on journal writing, Stephanie Dowrick’s Living Words: Journal writing for self-discovery, insight & creativity. (Viking Press, 2003). Each chapter includes lined pages, for writing responses to prompts. The book was provided when I attended Dowrick’s one-day journaling workshop, which was hugely popular and mainly attracted women.

For me,  the day’s take-home  message was:  When you write, honour messiness, honesty, and serious intent.

Most of the participants would probably have agreed about first drafts being messy, plus the advantages of honesty. But  the idea of honouring our intent as storytellers? An interesting twist that day suggested that this aspect may be harder to understand and achieve.

When Stephanie asked us to undertake an exercise in her book, many people put it to one side and instead started to write on whatever they had brought along with them, such as their notebook or some sheets of paper. When she suggested using the writing space in her book, people looked uneasy. One protested that she wanted to ‘save’ the book, that it was ‘too good’ to write in.

Writing in a published book is usually a no-no. But the reluctance I sensed in the room could have been due to a different kind of trespass, that of inserting one’s ‘inferior’ writing into a ‘real’ (published) book, and as well, one created by a well-known, successful author. I decided I wouldn’t keep her book pristine  but make it  MINE, using it to explore–messily, honestly–myself and my writing.

Now, some years later, as I look through her/my book, I see I have  scribbled in brown, turquoise and black ink. Little is crossed out. Sentences and paragraphs jostle with dot points and diagrams. The pages are stuffed with other sheets of writings–lists of authors, books read, letters from friends, and even my entry pass to a memorable and life-changing bushwalk in remote Kakadu National Park.

Although at first it felt strange to write my ideas in this serious book, I soon came to enjoy using Stephanie’s prompts as a jumping off point into creativity, writing much more than I expected, even using the margins when I needed extra space.

If I’d saved the book, keeping it pristine while using a notebook to respond to the prompts, I’m not sure I would have felt so attuned to them.  And writing in such a lovely book helped me honour my ideas and identify a serious intent to write and explore.

If you have unused journals, why not start writing in them?  Even if you write your stories on the computer, you can still find a use for blank pages. Some people turn to them for their freewriting, believing that writing their first ideas by hand is best. I like to fill them with whatever captures my attention: poems, quotations, odd phrases, plus unusual photos and pictures, headlines, news articles, and names.

Whatever you do, don’t think about not using the journals. Left unopened, unused, they are simply negative energy—and who needs that?

Writing With The Power of Three

13 September, 2013

Three (Photo credit: Hub☺)

How can we make use of  the powerful rule of three in our writing?

Melissa Dahl, writing for the American NBC news site, uses the example of the spooky and frequent phenomenon of three celebrities dying in quick succession. Her example:  Ed McMahon dying on 23 June, 2009, followed two days later by Farrah Fawcett and Michael Jackson.  Some of my kin believed in the death by threes. If two relatives passed away within a few months of each other, the speculation was when—not if—the third death would occur.

There is no logic to the  rule of three. According to Dahl, it is human to look for order in an often random world. We identify patterns, even if they don’t stand up to scrutiny, to make sense of what happens to us and around us.

The rule of three is a strong pattern, embedded in western literature and culture.


Fairy tales  Goldilocks and the Three Bears. The Three Blind Mice. The Three Little Pigs.

Fiction titles  The Three Musketeers. The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly.  Eat, Pray, Love.

Fiction structure  Trilogies. Three-act plays. Stories and movies often contain a third item or development, that relates to the previous two items or developments by extending, augmenting or contradicting them.

Phrases  Location, location, location. Blood, sweat and tears. I came, I saw, I conquered.  Every Dick, Tom and Harry.

Joke structure    X, Y and Z went into the pub.

Developing a tripartite structure in writing

Because the rule of three is so dominant in western culture, it makes sense to considering seeing if it works for your story idea. For example, could your character–

  • experience two failures or problems, before finding success?
    Climber fails to summit twice, and then succeeds.
  • get involved with two ‘bad’ people before finding the ‘good’ one?
    The prince asks the two evil step-sisters to try on the glass slipper, before asking Cinderella.
  • undertake three tests or challenges, known beforehand (Son, you must bring back three magical items) or realised retrospectively?
    Luke Skywalker must destroy the Death Star, win over Leia and learn to use the Force.
  • journey to three places?
    Eat, Pray, Love

  • experience three transformational events/lessons?
    Dickens’ The Christmas Carol

Daily Freewriting–Yes or No?

18 June, 2013

English: Portrait of May Prinsep

Many popular how-to writing books promote the practice of daily writing. The rationale is that fronting up to the page or screen daily not only helps writers establish and continue a writing habit but also learn how to tap into their creativity.

Daily writing is not a huge ask. But most of the books suggest specifics  about how it should happen. For example, author Julia Cameron,  in The Right to Write,  recommends the following:

  1. Write three pages daily. Filling at least three pages each day helps writers push their boundaries, to explore and create.
  2. Write longhand.Writing by hand is thought by some to establish a strong creative connection between hand and brain.
  3. Write immediately upon waking. Starting the day writing, with a rested mind,  is thought to help writers tap into their imagination.
  4. Do all the above for three months. Keep an action alive for three months, and it becomes habit, part of your life.


When people say they ‘write’ each day, they may be referring to a number of writing activities—sketching ideas, drafting, rewriting. But many how-to-write gurus preference a particular  form of daily writing, called freewriting

In freewriting, you are asked to engage your subconscious. Toss out the outlines and logical analysis. Instead, write freely, meaning whatever pops into your brain.  Let words form on the paper or screen. Give yourself  permission to rant and rave, rock and roll, record secrets that no one else will see. And forget the ‘finish your spinach before you can have your dessert’ rule. When one idea peters out, drop it and move on. Do not stop to correct or rewrite.

I find the results of freewriting can liberate, but is it for everyone?

How it helps

Some writers become attuned to freewrite each day and enjoy its benefits:

  • In setting a goal to write  each day, and striving to meet this goal, you are carried over the first, scary writing bridge, the one between the self who wants to write and the self who is writing. A writer.
  • Daily freewriting gives you creative permission to write whatever you want, no matter how silly, crazy, non-PC. With practice, your subconscious may toss in odd but interesting ideas and  associations, which give you a different, enriched perspective.
  • The process lets you play with writing before moving on to undertake issues of  correctness.
  • This open-ended approach may help you identify your natural writing style, discover  topics that appeal to you, or explore  ‘unfinished business’ in your life.

How It Hinders

Some people find daily freewriting more frustrating than empowering. What can go wrong?

  • When you already have a writing project, freewriting may seem an additional,  irrelevant task.
  • You may prefer a more structured approach,  such as responding to a writing prompt.
  • Rather than removing restrictions, you may find freewriting makes you more anxious, feeling less in control.
  • Composing three pages daily may seem a huge obstacle.
  • Freewriting may make you feel less creative if your mind goes to  uninteresting ideas or gives you writer’s block.

Test Drive

If you haven’t used freewriting, it’s worth giving it a go to decide if it suits you.

I have found that writing junk simply to meet a three-page requirement does not work for me. If I start with an interesting idea, or am given a writing prompt–such as the phrase ‘I remember. . . ‘– I can get into the flow.

Other playful experimentation

  • Do you frequently remember your dreams? If so, writing as soon as you awake can help you capture images, names, situations.
  • Freewriting longhand may give your brain more time  to reflect on ideas. Work out if longhand instead of keyboard writing supports you.
  • Stick with the 90 days of freewriting, but use this time to analyse what works for you and what doesn’t.

Why Attend a Writers’ Festival?

23 May, 2013
Atrophaneura varuna astorion

Atrophaneura varuna astorion (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The 2013 Varuna-Sydney Writers’ Festival finished Tuesday night. As chair of the Varuna board, I was on tap to answer festival goers’ questions and greet our authors, but I still managed to attend all the sessions.

Many literary festivals have become behemoth events. Varuna has not. All presentations take place in the large dining room at the magnificent Carrington Hotel, built in 1882. Having 200 people in one room, all listening to the same session,  promotes a sense of literary camaraderie and enjoyable discussions amongst listeners.

Why attend a writers’ festival? It offers a fantastic way to discover new writers. You are confronted with new and different ideas, from the philosophical to the writing-technical. You have the opportunity to discuss issues with others in the audience, or with the writers themselves. And, like the varuna butterflies pictured on the left, you can flit to whatever interests you, drink ideas on offer, and discover new, nourishing books and authors.

Varuna provided its audience with a great line-up of talent this year.

  • Michelle de Kretser, one of our most respected, award-winning writers, discussed her new novel, Questions of Travel. She explores thorny issues, such as who gets to travel, why people choose or are forced to travel, and how guidebooks both help and hinder our travelling experiences.
  • Geordie Williamson is a major literary critic as well as a member of the local Blue Mountains Council.  In The Burning Library,  he discusses Aussie authors and books that have been almost forgotten.
  • Three young debut novelists, grouped under the heading, Landscapes of Love and Loss, read from their new work. Berndt Sellheim: Beyond the Frame’s Edge. Yvette Walker:  Letters to the End of Love. Jessie Cole: Darkness on the Edge of Town, shortlisted in major literary competitions.
  • Helen Trinca’s Madeleine: A life of Madeleine St Johnrefers to the first Australian woman shortlisted for the Booker Prize. Trinca is  managing editor of  The Australian. I especially liked hearing how she searched for information, and I admired her ethical stance when delving into someone’s life.
  • American Cheryl Strayed talked about her best-selling memoir, Wild. Her view that she could not write this account earlier says something about letting life-changing experiences ‘age’ properly.
  • Hugh Mackay, the famed social commentator, discussed his latest book, The Good Life,  about engaging meaningfully with others.
  • Anne Summers, famed social commentator and feminist, discussed her new book, The Misogyny Factor. The book details how powerful women, especially in politics, are pilloried by the press, male politicians, political cartoonists etc.
  • Three novelists discussed their new work. Jesse Blackadder’s historical fiction, Chasing the Light, about the first women adventurers in Antarctica. Local author Mark O’Flynn’s The Forgotten World, a comic account of a forgotten encampment here in the mountains.  Julienne van Loon‘s novella, Harmless, about a journey, with a modern interpretation of Buddhist stories.
  • Ramona Koval, famous as the past presenter of the popular (but now defunct) radio program, The Book Show, has written a memoir, By the Book. An engaging speaker, she talked about being the child of two Holocaust survivors, growing up in Australia, and her love of reading.
  • Dermot Healy, Irish poet, novelist, and playwright, read from his novel, Long Time, No See. It has all the quirkiness, magic, and intimacy often found in Irish works. And hearing it read with an Irish accent was particularly charming.
  •  I enjoyed hearing three writers discuss the short story form. Georgia Blain: The Secret Lives of Men. Cate KennedyLike a House on Fire. Josephine Rowe:  Tarcutta Wake.
  • Local writer Jane Skelton launched her debut short fiction collection, Lives of the Dead. The event was sponsored by the publisher, Spineless Wonders, which specialises in short fiction and electronic (spineless) delivery.
  • I enjoyed the panel session of writers who had contributed their migration stories to the new anthology, With Joyful Strains: Making Australia Home. The comments gave me an insight into my feelings about a step I took years ago, to be part of Australia.
  • Another highlight was having a seat on the ‘poetry bus’ to Jenolan Caves, where a poetry reading was held in a large cave. Poets: Sandy Holmes, Philip Hammial, David Brooks, Bronwyn Lea, Aboriginal Australian Lionel Fogarty, Kate Fagan, Irish Dermot Healy, and American Devin Johnston.

Turning Your Anecdote into a Short Story: Part 2

16 April, 2013

In Part 1, I explained writer Shirley Jackson’s views about important issues writers should address when converting a real-life anecdote to fiction. The sample anecdote she used—which I refer to in this post—is found in Part 1.

I once wrote a short story, based on a real event when I worked at a day centre for emotionally disturbed adults. It involved three main characters—an over-bearing director, a client going off his meds, and an unhappy staff member. I made changes to ensure the real people were not identifiable.

I showed a writing consultant the story. He hated it. I entered it in a couple of short story contests. It didn’t win. Members of my writing group suggested changes so I made major revisions and later on asked a professional writer to read it. She also found it problematic.

I loved the story, so what was the problem? It was only after reading Shirley Jackson’s essay that I realised what was wrong. I had let the real events dominate instead of focusing on creating  believable fiction. Writer Alice Munro explains:

Anecdotes don’t make good stories. Generally I dig down underneath them so far that the story that finally comes out is not what people thought their anecdotes were about.

Jackson suggested specifics for successfully fictionalising a real-life anecdote.

Help your readers get emotional.

An anecdote that you are part of—directly or indirectly—snags your imagination because of the emotions it evokes. Even years later, remembering the event may call up the original emotion you felt then—hate, happiness, fear, excitement.

Your readers do not have this incident-emotion link so you need to create it. Do so by conveying your characters’ feelings as well as their thoughts, actions, reactions.

Give each character a ‘face’.

Jackson used face to mean a distinct personality. A short story has limited textual space. To create distinct individuals, concentrate on what Jackson called the ‘small things’:  ‘gestures, turns of speech, automatic reactions.’

For your major characters, make them stand out by giving each one a distinct personality trait. Jackson’s example was to make a village woman self-disparaging:
‘. . . [W]hen someone praises her cakes she answers that they’re really not very good, actually; she made much, better cakes for the church fair last year; she just wishes that no one would even taste a piece of this year’s cake, because it’s really not any good at all . . . . ‘

Jackson believed that once the major personality trait was established, no more description was needed. Readers would generalise from the specific to decide if a character was likeable or not, trustworthy or not.

Small descriptors can also be used to  ‘spotlight’ minor characters. Jackson imagined the village minister having an habitual gesture when he was worried. She thought this single small gesture—covering his eyes with his hand—was more effective than giving readers a whole ‘ biography’ of character details.

Sketch some ideas.

The first step in transforming your  incident into fiction is experimentation. Jackson suggested  ‘sketching in lightly’ to discover who and what works best in terms of creating  fiction. Instead of having the village women as stage props, she characterised them, imaging them as a ‘tightly knit group, interested in their own concerns, and as resentful of outsiders as any of us.’

She believed that following a single character ‘from beginning to end’ focused a story.  You can experiment by playing with who ‘owns’ the story, and considering what perspective they may have.

A ‘what-if’ approach also allows for experimentation.  Jackson posed questions:
What if the women are quarrelling and the minister planned the village fair as an attempt to make peace? What if the rich visitor is shy and wants to be liked? What if the chauffeur is an outsider? A local man?

Limit the timeframe and support it with a backstory.

Less can be more in terms of fictional time. Jackson suggested reducing the story’s timeframe  to the ‘actual moments of the raffle’. But the story also needs sufficient ‘telling’ conversations and incidents—the backstory—to enable readers to understand the impact of the raffle. Jackson’s suggestion: Show how the village women look at the visitor’s car and what they say to each other about this.

Use foreshadowing.

Jackson stressed the importance of  ‘telegraphing’ the story’s main point. You do this by creating an early incident, and then connecting it with the final major event. Her example was to establish an early incident—the visitor buys a cake at one of the festival stalls and a village woman reacts negatively. Later, when the visitor wins the coveted quilt, the villager again reacts, an escalation from the earlier event.

Ensure your characters partake.

Jackson believed every character must in some way ‘partake’, to become an essential part of the story, someone  ‘peculiar to this story and no other.’

She imagined adding to the story a boy as a minor character. If the boy climbs a tree to watch the raffle, this adds local colour—but does nothing in terms of story-building.

But what if the boy climbs an apple tree, its branches overhanging the visitor’s car, and deliberately drops apples onto the car’s roof? Now his actions reinforce the central conflict, villagers vs. outsider. He ‘exists nowhere else in the world than in this story and this village, and it must be made clear that this is where he belongs.’

Shake, snarl, sneak

One danger in using a real-life anecdote is to retell it exactly as it happened. Jackson suggested that you seek fictional variations. Attack the original ‘the way a puppy attacks an old shoe’—‘shake it, snarl at it, sneak up on it from various angles.’ Some permutations:

  • Start at the end. The narrator could be an outsider, relating the fair event. Maybe it is an ex-villager who still loves the place but is sympathetic to the summer visitor.
  • Turn the story inside out. The visitor’s two small children could be placed on the outskirts of the fair, playing cooperatively with some village children. Focusing on the children could create a telling contrast to the adults’ behaviour.
  • Turn the story outside in. A character’s motive could be reversed. What if the visitor is determined to get the quilt, so much so that she employs ‘highhanded maneuvering’ to ensure winning it?

Jackson, Shirley (1969). ‘Experience and Fiction.’ Come Along with Me. Ed. Stanley Edgar Hyman. London: Michael Joseph.

© Marsha Durham, WritingCompanion blog, 2013


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