I was quite excited about the last writing prompt I posted, yet as I wrote out the steps, I realized that the exercise would have gone much more smoothly had I been in front of the classroom delivering the steps myself. Pausing between complications. Brainstorming examples to illustrate the most complicated steps. I decided that this week, in contrast, I must find an easier exercise to explain, at least, if not to complete.
I travelled back in time to a prompt I used in the “Writing the Novel” course I taught at Lansing Community College in the early 2000s. An exercise rooted in fiction primarily, it was meant to direct the writer toward character development, point of view, and voice.
This version of the exercise, however, does not have to be fiction. Nonfiction or memoir will work just as well, because the exercise begins with you as a person.
Brainstorming, 5-10 minutes
Writing, 20 minutes
- Think about how you view yourself as a person as well as how other people might view you. Think about your traits, good and bad, and the kinds of things people say about you. Are you conscientious? Witty? The life of the party? A nervous Nelly (whatever that is!)? These words and ideas are mostly adjectives, but think about nouns that people use also, identity words like “artist,” “lawyer,” “pipe fitter,” and “pastry chef.”
- Now, slide a bit away from that person, that character who is YOU but not you. Step out of your body to observe. Let the writer part of you creep across the room to a spot from which to survey things. Note: the photo above sort of captures this step. I was “creeping” as I looked out the window, viewing my daughter from an elevated room in the place we stayed during vacation. Imagine that the person in the picture is YOU being observed by someone else from a different perspective.
- The original exercise I explored nearly two decades ago said something like, “Using the first-person point of view, write about yourself from the perspective of an opposite sex relative who is older than you.” That instruction provides two little twists beyond the original instruction of thinking about your traits as a person – the opposite sex perspective and the age perspective. This works great if you are binary cis-gendered. If you are not, think about an older relative with a sexual orientation that you view as “other.” What we are looking for here is difference, so binary distinctions aren’t crucial.
Hopefully these steps seem straightforward. To play out an example, I have written from the perspective of an uncle who is describing me. Many of my uncles are deceased, so I must dig back to my childhood. I’m thinking about my Uncle Max, my mother’s brother. Here are a couple of sentences in Uncle Max’s voice (first-person), describing me as a young girl:
I wish I could tell you what makes that girl tick, but I just don’t know. She and her sisters were supposed to come to our house for a week to spend time with their cousins. Esther, her mom, was going to have a week alone at home to just relax and have some quiet time. But the first thing you know, Vern comes in the door after his drive to Mt. Clemens with the oldest and the youngest, Linda and Lori. Dawn stayed home. She couldn’t leave her mother. She wanted to, but at the last minute she just couldn’t leave her mom, Vern said.
I know kids get attached, but why is she so shy? My sister is not shy, and it amazes me that she could have such a shy daughter. Dawn gets sick, too. Asthma. I guess it’s just as well. We wouldn’t know what to do with her if she stopped breathing.
- If you don’t like the idea of writing a first-person monologue from this older, opposite- or other-sex person, you could try a dialogue in script form in which the older, other character engages in a discussion with the younger person (the YOU character) and the script reveals something significant about the you character’s personality.
I tried to capture something of my uncle’s voice here, in this first-person narration that I did from his perspective. I also tried to capture some of what would be completely incomprehensible to him – my shyness – because like my mother, he was a pretty extreme extrovert.
- Try to write for twenty minutes from this first-person voice of the older other.
Remember, if these instructions seem confusing, there is really no way to screw up a writing prompt because…
… the whole point of a prompt is to just get you writing; there is no wrong or right.