Monday, December 04, 2006

TO WRITE: Focus the Power of Your Writing
For the past eight years, I've led a creative writing class for people with mood disorders, meeting weekly at Stanford University's Psychiatry Department. While we often explore our mental health issues through writing and sharing, we write on other topics as well.

Why bother writing about sand or your favorite meal or a photograph of a cheetah? Many reasons, I believe. For example, these exercises help us "warm up" as we begin a two-hour writing session; students report they are calming, clarifying, thought-provoking; and reading their pieces aloud helps validate writers' thoughts and feelings in a safe community. But these unusual topics also make us better, stronger writers by developing our use of techniques including: memory, the senses, and vivid detail. These three things are among those many authors (of fiction and non-fiction) emphasize when teaching others to hone their writing craft.

Writing about your family car when you were a child requires you to: Dig into your memory banks, which may lead you to long-forgotten stories as well. Describe the way the car looked and perhaps sounded as it backfired, felt as it hit a bump, or smelled of popcorn after a drive-in movie. And it encourages you to stretch yourself to come up with vivid details that will really bring the reader into your experience -- how Mom's beehive hairdo almost touched the ceiling, how big brother whined as he begged to be allowed to drive.

All these techniques help writers to better develop a narrative and to develop changes in perspective. Both these things have been found in studies to be more likely to effect health changes when writing about trauma -- something we're likely to address in the second in-class exercise of the day.

Play with this...
Write a description of your high school gym teacher. Try to use all of your senses as you look back to recall him or her. Use vivid details as much as possible to elucidate his/her character. What stories do you recall? Help an imagined reader really know this person.

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