Memoir of Transcendence

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Figurative Language Glossary


A Magical Life, Christine Chalmers

Image—A picture in words; a word or sequence of words that refers to any sensory experience (having to do with sight, hearing, touch, taste, or scent).

  • The Autumn wind blows the rust-red scarf back from her face.
  • The brown, withered leaves rustle about our feet as we stamp around in our green plastic boots.
  • I plunge my soft hand into the porcelain bowl of ice cold water.
  • A green-feathered hummingbird hovers in mid-air, its wings beating fast.

Simile—A comparison of two things, indicated by some connective (usually like, as, than, or a verb such as resembles). It usually only refers to one characteristic that two things may have in common.

  • Like a long-legged fly upon the stream/his mind moves upon silence.
  • Our headlights caught, as in a flashbulb’s flare,/a pair of hitchhikers.
  • The skin prickles, outraged as a cactus at this cold.
  • The birds on the power lines resemble musical notes.
  • I am as tired as the seams of my grandfather’s old fishing trousers.
  • Curtains lift and fall like the chest of someone sleeping.
  • I wear my patience like a light green dress, and wear it thin.

Su Blackwell

Metaphor—A statement that one thing IS something else, which, in a literal sense, it is not; a comparison that omits the connective. A metaphor is not limited in the number of resemblances it might indicate; in fact, the best metaphors work on several or many levels.

  • All the world’s a stage,/and all the men and women merely players.
  • The fog comes on little cat feet.
  • I slept as never before, a stone on a river bed.
  • I will speak daggers to her, but use none.
  • When the hounds of spring are on winter’s traces.
  • My love has thorns! (Implied metaphor)

Personification—An image that attributes human characteristics to an inanimate object.

  • The wind stood up and gave a shout.
  • The eagle clasps the crag with crooked hands.
  • The wrinkled sea beneath him crawls.
ViaAdele P

Via Adele P

Transferred Epithet—An image or phrase that attributes a quality that belongs with one thing (usually a person) to another (usually an object) for reasons of poetic complexity and surprise.

  • Lonely lands. (The land is not lonely; a person in it might be.)
  • Snake-lying tale. (A tale cannot lie, but the person telling it might.)

Symbol–An image that stands for something bigger, representing an idea, an absolute truth or a intangible reality, a process, a feeling, or something else that does not have material existence. The word “symbol” derives from the Latin symbolum, a symbol of faith, and symbolus, a sign of recognition. In turn it comes from classical Greek συμβόλων or symbolon, an object cut in half constituting a sign of recognition when the carriers were able to reassemble the two halves. In ancient Greece, the symbolon, was a shard of pottery which was inscribed and then broken into two pieces which were given to the ambassadors from two allied city states as a record of the alliance. Literature is full of symbols, which convey deeper meaning. Some symbols have universal meaning (sunrise representing a new beginning, a stream the passing of time, water consciousness, blossom spring, etc.). Other symbols have individual meaning attributed to the image by the writer. More information and examples here, on Literary World Blogspot: Literary World Blogspot, Symbols in Literature

Jessie Chorley

Jessie Chorley


Mixed Metaphor–Jumbling together two or more metaphoric images that don’t go together, often in an illogical manner. Mixed metaphors lack clarity because they move in too many directions at once. They confuse the mind of the reader and don’t quite hit home. succession of incongruous or ludicrous comparisons. Mixed metaphors are often composed of cliches or over-used, stale expressions.

  • Water the spark of knowledge and it will bear fruit.
  • We want a knock-your-socks out website that will teach anyone’s mind’s eye to play it by ear!
  • Her oral writing is not very strong; she’s not the sharpest cookie in the jar.
  • Once you open a can of worms, they always come home to roost!
  • We’re treading on thin water. This is a really hard bubble to crack.
  • Let’s use the tip of the iceberg as a first stepping stone. Or is that putting the chicken before the cart?
  • “All at once he was alone in this noisy hive with no place to roost.” (Tom Wolfe, The Bonfire of the Vanities)
  • “Top Bush hands are starting to get sweaty about where they left their fingerprints. Scapegoating the rotten apples at the bottom of the military’s barrel may not be a slam-dunk escape route from accountability anymore.” (Frank Rich, The New York Times, July 18, 2008)

Class 6 Word Memoirs


Georgia O’Keeffe

Joanne Taylor:

Busy making memories, not car payments

Catching moments, and making them dance

André Molina:

Nothing is Forever, Time is Something…

Susie Misuraca:

I have no room for the moon

Stephanie Faulkner:

My muse lives in my dreams

My lousy father is my inspiration

Imagination induced memories take me there

My weaknesses shall be my strengths

Just be one with the flow

Rheanne Schlee:

I’m not quiet, you’re just loud

Storing the past, preparing the future

Warren Ottley:

Enduring the dungeon of squandered life

Restrained shackles of fear and doubt

Blind to life, naive to change

Demon of despair, slain by time

Repeated mistakes, fear realized, hidden potential

Seeds of doubt reaps unfulfilled dreams

A hierophant’s wisdom, a joker’s delivery


Georgia O’Keeffe

Justin Whitmer:

  • Lost now found, Broken now fixed.

v  Let My Light Shine Real Bright

  • Without a Wick, Candles are Wax

v  Never Settling, Constantly Searching, Always Growing

  • Needle in Hay, a Blissful Way

v  Painted Blue in a Green World

  • Taught All Wrong, Love Long Gone

v  Lost Way, Led Astray, What’s Love?

  • Love’s Fleeting Gift, Always in Sight

v  Who Knew Life Was So Much?

  • Energy Drinks = Cocaine of the Century

v  Coffee = The Heroine of Colleges Everywhere

  • Wait for the Train. I’ll Fly.

v  Don’t Drive Cars After The Bars

  • Lasting the Ages, Goals Slowly Faded

v  Invigorate my Mind, Liberate my Heart

  • Musical Melodies Run Through My Veins

v  Unimaginable Beauty Lost in the Night

  • Fall for me before I’m gone

v  Left alone. Gave you a pulse.

  • My love. Sitting at the bus-stop.

v  A late arrival isn’t always fashionable.

  • Gift of the day, Given away.

v  Tighten the Grip, Riding this Trip

  • Burdened With Fear You’ll Go Nowhere

v  Lost in Moments Searching for Time

  • Get this : Life can be Bliss

v  Realizing everything was actually always nothing

  • Crazy you, feeling red as blue.

v  Understand it’s part of the plan

  • Here’s to making everyday life changing!

v  Relax. Breathe… Relaxing, Breathing… Relax. Breathe…

  • The Salt. The Sand. Divinely Planned.

v  Cry to me while hurting me.

  • Four Walls. One Door. Two Windows.

v  Lost in Moments Searching for Time


Georgia O’Keeffe

Andrew Galbreath:

On a path wild world ahead

Eva St. Denis:

It’s simple, say I love you.

Standing naked, trying to accept me.

They said broken, so I became.

Trying to acquaint soul with body.

I was told, there’d be cookies.

Hannah Russ Smith:

Thinking too much can be tormenting.
Poetic longing, I love my melancholy.
A steadily deepening hope for home.
The need for lightness all around.
Hunger for clarity, surrender to questioning.
Smooth flow, awkwardly swerving sideways.
I’m never quiet, on the inside.
My grace is rooted in pace.
My pace is rooted in grace.
A fluctuation of the space-time continuum.
Unidentified, undirected, unapologetic in my journey.
In dire need of divine intervention.
Please, stay out of my space.
Juicy pineapple with a spikey peel.
Luxury, warmth, snuggling and eye gazing.
Pen to paper, relax, and enjoy.
Reluctantly transcending self-neglecting ancestry; big work.
Sampling extremes while anchored to center.
Ever-blossoming, inward, outward, inspite of myself.
Staring off into space, with purpose.
See, feel, speak, rinse and repeat.
These six words are profoundly sufficient.


Georgia O’Keeffe

History of the Memoir: Sei Shonagon and Kenko

Here more about two forerunners of the modern memoir, Sei Shonagon and Yoshida Kenko. At the bottom of each section, find pdf links where you can read more of Kenko and Shonagon’s work.



Here you can find out more about Sei Shonagon: Sei Shonagon, Wikipedia

Sei Shōnagon (清少納言?, lesser councilor of state Sei), (c. 966–1017) was a Japanese author and a court lady who served the Empress Teishi (Sadako) around the year 1000 during the middle Heian period. She is best known as the author of The Pillow Book (枕草子 makura no sōshi?).

Little is known about her life except what can be found in her writing. She was the daughter of Kiyohara no Motosuke, a scholar and well-known waka poet, who worked as a provincial official. Her grandfather Kiyohara no Fukayabu was also a waka poet. The family were middle-ranking courtiers and had financial difficulties, possibly because they were not granted a revenue-producing office.

She married Tachibana no Norimitsu, a government official at 16, and gave birth to a son, Norinaga. In 993, at 27, when she began to serve the Empress Teishi, consort of Emperor Ichijō, she may have been divorced. When her court service ended she may have married Fujiwara no Muneyo, governor of Settsu province, and had a daughter, Koma no Myobu, although some evidence suggests she became a Buddhist nun.

Shōnagon became popular through her work The Pillow Book, a collection of lists, gossip, poetry, observations, complaints written during her years in the court, a miscellaneous genre of writing known as zuihitsu. The Pillow Book was circulated at court, and for several hundred years existed in handwritten manuscripts. First printed in the 17th century, it exists in different versions: the order of entries may have been changed by scribes with comments and passages added, edited, or deleted. In The Pillow Book, Shōnagon writes about Empress Teishi, and her disappointment after her father’s death when Fujiwara no Michinaga made his daughter Shōshi consort to Ichijō, and then empress, making Teishi one of two empresses at court.

Shōnagon writes with apparent lightheartedness about Teishi’s death, from childbirth in 1000. According to the prevalent fashion, to have written more passionately would have been considered unstylish. Her writing is considered witty, depicting Teishi’s elegant court from a detailed, gossipy perspective.

The entries in The Pillow Book on rhetoric include advice and opinions on conversation, preaching, and letter writing. On conversation, Shōnagon advocates pure language and rigorous use of amenities in the sections of advice, but also offers vignettes showing witty repartee and sociable give-and-take among the empress’s ladies and between ladies and gentlemen. Shōnagon also touches upon the topic of preaching. She says that priests should be handsome who are well trained in elocution, with excellent memories, as well as attentive, polite audiences who do not come to services to flirt and show off. Later, she offers detailed information on letter writing, offering prescriptions for paper, calligraphy, accompanying gift and bearer, and appreciation for the value of letters as gifts of love. In particular, Shōnagon paid special attention to “morning-after letters.” In Japanese court society, heterosexual sex between courtiers was illicit but happened very often. A social requirement was that the male sent a poem on beautiful paper with a decorative flower or branch to the lady, and that she reply. Shōnagon goes in depth about this subject matter in her section called, “Things That Make One Nervous.”

Here you can read more in a pdf file on Barrus’ World Literature Blog: PDF The Pillow Book

And here another selection, The Pillow Book of Sei Shonagon, David-Glen Smith: PDF The Pillow Book 2



Here you can find out more about Kenko: Yoshida Kenkō (吉田 兼好, Wikipedia

More about the Essays in Idleness, the Tsurezuregusa: Essays in Idleness, Tsurezuregusa, Wikipedia

Yoshida Kenkō (吉田 兼好?, 1283? – 1350?) was a Japanese author and Buddhist monk. His most famous work is Tsurezuregusa (Essays in Idleness), one of the most studied works of medieval Japanese literature. Kenko wrote during the Muromachi and Kamakura periods.

Tsurezuregusa (徒然草?, Essays in Idleness, alternatively: The Harvest of Leisure) is a collection of Japanese essays written by the monk Yoshida Kenkō between 1330 and 1332. The work is widely considered a gem of medieval Japanese literature and one of the three representative works of the zuihitsu [1] genre, along with Makura no Sōshi and the Hōjōki.

Tsurezuregusa comprises a preface and 243 passages (段, dan), varying in length from a single line to a few pages. Kenkō, being a Buddhist monk, writes about Buddhist truths, and themes such as death and impermanence prevail in the work, although it also contains passages devoted to the beauty of nature as well as some on humorous incidents. The original work was not divided or numbered; the division can be traced to the 17th century.

The work takes its name from its preface passage:

Tsurezurenaru mama ni, hikurashi, suzuri ni mukaite, kokoro ni utsuriyuku yoshinashigoto wo, sokowakatonaku kakitsukureba, ayashū koso monoguruoshikere.

In Keene’s translation:

What a strange, demented feeling it gives me when I realise I have spent whole days before this inkstone, with nothing better to do, jotting down at random whatever nonsensical thoughts that have entered my head.

where つれづれ (tsurezure) means “having nothing to do.”

For comparison, Sansom‘s translation:

To while away the idle hours, seated the livelong day before the inkslab, by jotting down without order or purpose whatever trifling thoughts pass through my mind, truly this is a queer and crazy thing to do!

Here you can read more in pdf format, from Essays in Idleness, UAF, eLearning and Distance Education: Essays in Idleness, Kenko, PDF

The Stubborn Gladness of Elizabeth Gilbert


“I think creativity is entirely a spiritual practice. It has defined my entire life to think of it that way. When I hear the way some people speak about their work, people who are in creative fields who either attack themselves, or attack their work, or treat it as a burden rather than a blessing, or treat it as something that needs to be fought and defeated and beaten. . . . There is a war that people go to with their creative path that is very unfamiliar to me. To me, it feels like a holy calling and one that I am grateful for.

“I can lay out the biography of it and say, “My parents are big readers, and they spent a lot of time in the library. And I had an older sister who is really creative, and we used to write plays.” I can even break it down and say, “I am really disciplined, and I work really hard, and I put decades of work into learning how to write.” And I could have put decades into playing a violin, yet I wasn’t going to become advanced. I took piano lessons for 10 years; I still can’t play very well.

“I think creativity is entirely a spiritual practice…I was given a contract, and the contract is: ‘We are not going to tell you why, but we gave you this capacity. Your side of the contract is that you must devote yourself to this in the highest possible manner, you must approach it with the greatest respect, and you must give your whole self to this. And then we will work with you on making progress.’ That’s sort of what it feels like for me.” ~ Elizabeth Gilbert


With Luca Spaghetti, ITALY

More from the interview:

Interviewer: You have written about how important self-forgiveness is in the creative process.

“Oh my God, it’s so hard. And we are the last person we can forgive. But it’s necessary—even more than discipline, even more than inspiration—that gentleness [with yourself]. It’s the opposite of what we are taught about the big geniuses creating, with the furrowed brow and the sweat and thrashing and gnashing. There is always such a violence in it.

“To me, the best work I have done is when I say to myself, Well, that was a good try. This isn’t a perfect story you just created, but that’s the best we are going to do today, and tomorrow we can pick it up again. When you see artists who lead their life on the battlefield, that’s a missing feature that causes the self-abuse and the torment and the alcoholism—”

Interviewer: The archetype of the suffering artist.

It’s really strong, and I think it comes in part from the old Christian theology that you can only trust suffering and pain, and that all pleasure holds the possibility for sin. Only through lashing yourself and denying yourself all comforts can you be certain that you are actually living a serious life. I think it’s now a little out of date. I think it’s in need of a tune-up.


Ashram friends, India, with Richard from Texas, INDIA

Interviewer: Why do you think that being creative or an artist has become a rarefied thing, something that “other people do” and not a part of our daily life?

“A very good piece of fortune I had as a child was that I was raised by parents who had no faith whatsoever in professionals. To the point that they didn’t go to doctors when they had an eye infection and stuff like that. They take it to an extreme, that you don’t need a permission slip from the principal, that, really, you can do everything yourself. And while there is some pathology in that, it was also part of my childhood, seeing people who didn’t wait for permission to do something before they did it—whether it’s doing their own plumbing or growing their own food or making their own clothing.

“So I never had this obstacle that some people have. I felt like, I can write a book—you just write one. I think that [way of thinking] is from a different era, where people just felt that they were allowed to write a song, they were allowed to make a drawing. Now I spend a lot of time trying to talk people out of getting an MFA. Unless you have a trust fund or you have gotten the full scholarship and you have nothing else to do, you don’t need an MFA to do this. You can just do this. But it’s become a profession, and if you don’t have the right accreditation from the right institution, you are not considered a professional artist. That’s weird, that’s just weird, and it’s never been like that in history before now. I think it’s contemporary, and I think it’s also really American, and it’s stopping a lot of people.”


With Ketut Liyer, BALI

Interviewer: Yes—like we need to have permission or accreditation or a degree to be creative, instead of its being a part of who we are.

“There is something really nutty and sad about that. My sister pointed out that something happens when we get to high school. She’s noticed this with her kids and other kids, where they love to read and they love to write stories and they love to do stuff—and then you get to high school. All of a sudden they throw the Great Books at you, and they send you this message very clearly that the books that you have so far been enjoying have no value.”

Interviewer: What are your spiritual or creative influences?

“These days I am drawing most of my creative inspiration from poets. I feel like they bridge the gap between the literary world and the spiritual world because so often the poet’s work is purely coming out of the stream. They really are walking around with a transistor radio getting messages. The poet Jack Gilbert, who just passed away, much to my sorrow, is as important to me as any guru that I have ever read. Ruth Stone is another one I love, love, love. These are people whose work I carry around with me the way other people would carry around a prayer book and who I return to for inspiration.

“I have a mantra that I have used for meditation. It’s a line of Jack Gilbert’s: “We must have the stubbornness to accept our gladness in the ruthless furnace of this world.” That idea of ‘stubborn gladness’ is my meditation. I love that line because it doesn’t deny suffering; it doesn’t deny the existence of suffering; it doesn’t deny that the world is a ruthless furnace. But there is a fierce insistence on staying awake and staying afloat in the midst of that, that I go back to again and again and again.”

Here a link to the entire article, published in Spirituality & Health called “The Stubborn Gladness of Elizabeth Gilbert,” written by Karen Bouris: The Stubborn Gladness of Elizabeth Gilbert.


Elizabeth Gilbert’s follow up to Eat, Pray, Love is Committed: A Love Story: Committed: A Love Story

More from Elizabeth Gilbert’s Website: Conversations & Excerpts:

Elements of Story Telling


Janusz Grabianski, ill; story: Hans C. Andersen, “Thumbelina”

Memoirs do many things: explore ideas, argue beliefs, offer solutions to problems, philosophize about life’s great mysteries and questions, evoke emotion by juxtaposing images as in poetry, offer vignettes that are glimpses into another world, analyze feelings and experiences, and give commentary on the goings-on in the world.

However, most memoirs also tell stories. A good number of memoirs read pretty much like novels, drawing you fully into the narrative world of the characters. In order to do this well, it helps to have familiarity with some terms from fiction:


Setting: The location, time, historical context, mood and atmosphere of the graphic narrative. Without setting, a story takes place in vacuity and cannot fully come to life. Just as a play employs “props” to create a believable world in which the characters act, so a story needs setting, which literally sets the stage on which the characters engage with each other. Sometimes setting can be such an important part of a story that it becomes almost like a personified character.


Character: A character is any person, persona, identity, or entity that originates in a work of writing. Along with plot, setting, theme, style, and point of view, character is considered one of the fundamental components of story telling. Characters may be entirely fictional, or they may be based upon real people, contemporary or historical. They may be human, supernatural, mythical, divine, animal, or personifications of an abstraction. Characterization is the process of creating an image of a person in fiction or memoir, complete with that person’s traits, features, and motivation. The word “character” derives from the ancient Greek word kharaktêr (χαρακτήρ) through its Latin transcription character. Since the 19th century, the art of creating characters, as practiced by actors or writers, has been called characterization.

Type: A character who stands as a representative of a particular class or group of people is known as a type. Types include both stock or stereotypical characters (flat characters) and those that are more fully individualised (round characters). Different types of characters are the protagonist, the antagonist or villain or opponent, the hero, the main character, minor character, and the foil.

Protagonist: A protagonist (from the Greek πρωταγωνιστής protagonistes, “one who plays the first part, chief actor,” is the main character (the central or primary personal figure) of a literary and/or graphic narrative, around whom the events of the narrative’s plot revolve and with whom the audience is intended to share the most empathy. There can be more than one protagonist in a story. A protagonist is not always the hero of a story; a protagonist can be an anti-hero because of his/her human flaws. In a personal essay, the “I” or first person narrator (the writer) is also the protagonist—the person the reader will most identify with and get to know the best while reading the essay.

Antagonist: The principal opponent of the protagonist is a character known as the antagonist, who represents or creates obstacles that the protagonist(s) must overcome. As with protagonists, there may be more than one antagonist in a story (as in life). The antagonist does not necessarily have to be a “bad” character; it could, for example, be a parent who is protective of a child and does not want to let him/her drive a car alone at night, or a person who thwarts the protagonist because of his/her own understandable needs and desires.

Foil: A foil is a person who contrasts with another character (usually the protagonist) in order to highlight various features of the main character’s personality and to throw the character of the protagonist into sharper focus. A foil usually has some important characteristics in common with the other character, such as superficial traits or personal history. Often it is a best friend, a sidekick, a mate, a partner, or something of the kind.

Scene: In fiction or memoir, a scene is a unit of dramatic action: what happens in one place at a certain time in a continuous action. The purpose of scene is to set characters in motion and render action. Scenes advance story, show conflict, introduce or develop characters, create suspense and give information, create atmosphere, develop theme, and further the plot. Usually a story has several minor scenes and one or more major (or climactic) scenes in which the dramatic story comes to a climax, which then unravels in a conclusion (see Plot). Scenes almost always involve dialogue, and therefore both text and subtext. Plot is built up of exposition (narration) and scenes and each scene usually includes dialogue.

Dialogue: In fiction and memoir, dialogue is the conversational exchange between two or more people—namely, the characters about which a story is told. It’s a literary form with underpinnings in rhetoric and theater. Dialogue allows the graphic narrator to explore the different voices of the characters, their slang, their personality, their true natures. Dialogue can bring a lot of intimacy, humor, poignancy, immediacy, and diversity to a graphic narrative piece.


Roy Lichtenstein, subtext

Subtext: Subtext is content of speech/dialogue (or sometimes narrative), which is not announced explicitly by the characters (or author), but is implicit or becomes something understood by the reader. Subtext can also refer to the thoughts and motives of the characters, which are only covered in an aside. And subtext can be used to imply controversial subjects without specifically alienating people from the fiction; this is often accomplished through use of metaphor. Subtext is basically that which is hidden, the deeper agenda.

In dialogue, subtext is content underneath the spoken words—the true meaning which is implied but not expressly spoken out loud. Underneath seemingly simple or polite dialogue can play conflict, anger, competition, pride, love, passion, caring or yearning, jealousy, showing off, or other implicit ideas and emotions. Subtext indicates the unspoken thoughts and motives of characters—what they really think and believe  even if they cannot say it. Subtext just beneath the surface of dialogue makes dialogue more interesting, but it can also cause characters to be misunderstood. Writers play with the dynamic relationship between text and subtext, layering their work in richly dynamic ways that aren’t predictable and therefore all the more human and poignant. Subtext also allows for understatement. Instead of having your characters gush with emotion, you can convey emotion in subtext, never stating it outright, but evoking it all the same.

Plot: A literary term, plot is the backbone of a story: all the events and actions particularly rendered for the purpose of evoking some particular artistic or emotional effect or expressing a general theme. Plot usually involves a narrative structure (also called storyline or story arc) that includes exposition, conflict, rising action and climax, followed by a falling action and resolution.


Freytag’s pyramid

Exposition: Exposition is the beginning of the plot usually concerned with introducing characters and setting. These elements may be largely presented at the beginning of the story, or occur as a sort of incidental description throughout. Exposition may be handled in a variety of ways—perhaps a character or a set of characters explain the elements of the plot through dialogue or thought, through media such as newspaper clippings, through letters, and diaries, video tape, television, documentary, or omniscient narrative, etc.

Rising Action/Conflict: Rising Action is the central part of a story during which arise various problems, which lead up to the climax. Conflict is the “problem” in a story, which triggers the action. Usually conflict stems from the character’s desires and passions. There are five basic types of conflict: 1) Person vs. Person: One character in a story has a problem with one or more of the other characters; 2) Person vs. Society: A character has a conflict or problem with society-the school, the law, tradition; 3) Person vs. Him or Herself: A character struggles inside and has trouble deciding what to do; 4) Person vs. Nature: A character has a problem with some element of nature, a snowstorm, avalanche, bitter cold; 5) Person vs. Fate A character has to battle what seems to be an uncontrolled problem. In a longer graphic narrative, rising action can build slowly in steps. The problem at first may appear small, but then it gets worse and worse, until a climax is inevitable.

Climax: The climax is the high point of the story, where a culmination of events creates the peak of the conflict. The climax features the unraveling of all the conflict and struggle of the main characters of a story, and usually reveals any secrets that were kept, any mistaken identities, any unresolved aspects of the story. Alternatively, an anti-climax may occur, in which an expectedly difficult event is revealed to be incredibly easy or of paltry importance. The climax usually is rendered as a scene and spun out in great detail, but sometimes it’s not; it can be just a sentence or paragraph at the end of a story that unravels everything. The climax is never the first important scene in a story. In many stories, it is the last scene, the scene the story builds toward.

Climactic scene: The climactic scene is the scene in which the climax takes place. Usually it’s the last or almost the last scene of the story in which the protagonist (hero/heroine) attains or does not attain his/her goal. In itself it is not as important whether the hero/heroine wins or loses his/her objective; it is only important that the hero/heroine transforms and learns something, finding him or herself deeply changed. This in turn also changes the consciousness of the reader of the story.

Falling action: The falling action is the part of a story following the climax. This part of the story shows the result of the climax, and its effects on the characters, setting and proceeding events. Falling action can be anti-climactic for it can take away from the power of the climax. Usually it is so interwoven with the climax that it takes place almost simultaneously.

Resolution/Dénouement: In literature, a dénouement consists of a series of events that follow the climax of a drama or narrative, and thus serves as the conclusion of the story. Conflicts are resolved, creating a sense of catharsis or release of tension for both the characters and the reader. Etymologically, the French word dénouement is derived from the Old French word denouer, “to untie,” and from nodus, Latin for “knot.” Simply put, dénouement is the unraveling or untying of the knots, or the complexities of a plot.

The dénouement comprises events after the climax and the falling action (which should not be confused with dénouement). It can take the form of epilogue or a final scene, or a flashback that reveals how all the characters have moved on and how things have turned out since the climax. Evildoers repent, good and bad characters are exposed in their true natures, rulers are restored to power, wronged people come to justice, married couples bear children and have a fruitful life, disguises are dropped, lessons are learned, etc. In this sense, dénouement can be very satisfying for the reader. In the hands of an inexperienced writer, it can also become a bit sappy and overly-sweet or predictable. Modern literature likes better to end on a note of ambiguity where the final conclusion may be implied but where nothing is too tidy and where a lot is left unsaid. Modern writing also favors surprise endings that don’t allow for dénouement because they are too quick. In personal essay, dénouement can be subtle and represent an inner transformation of the writer, part of a continuum of action/transformation that may not be finished at the end of the essay, as essays are based on life experience, and life experience is rarely as neatly packaged as life appears to be in a fictional story. In a tragedy, a dénouement usually involves the death of one or more of the characters, for better or for worse. Dénouement is considered part of the classical dramatic structure.

Quest: In mythology and literature a quest—a journey towards a goal—serves as a plot device. Quests appear in the folklore of every nation and also figure prominently in non-national cultures. This is because the essence of quest lies within human consciousness: the journey outside and inside to attain greater good, or, spiritually speaking, enlightenment. In literature, quests require great exertion on the part of the hero and the overcoming of many obstacles—for example travel over a body of water symbolic of travel in consciousness, descent into the underworld symbolic of familiarization with death (transcendence), helping animals and humans in need to demonstrate kindness of heart and compassion, atoning with father and mother figures to clear the tensions of the past, fulfilling impossible tasks to demonstrate great resilience, answering complicated questions and solving riddles to demonstrate superior intellect, performing trying tasks to demonstrate superior virtue, slaying monsters or dragons to demonstrate valor, etc. Once the hero or heroine overcomes all obstacles, he or she receives a “boon” or reward to bring back to his or her society. The quest motif is present in all of literature and serves as a framework for plot in many graphic narratives.

Katharsis: Literally “going beyond,” from the Greek kata basein, is a literary term referring to the climactic moment the hero/heroine of a story transcends his/her own boundaries and the boundaries of the world he/she lives in, experiencing a new awakening to new truth. In psychology, katharsis is a term to indicate emotional purging, but it is more than that in literature—it quite literally means transformation through transcendence. Katharsis is an essential part of the archetypal “quest.”


Janusz Grabianski ill, story: Hans C. Andersen, “The Ugly Duckling”

Epiphany: Less grand than katharsis, epiphany indicates a sudden, intuitive perception of or insight into the reality or essential meaning of something, usually initiated by some simple, homely, or commonplace occurrence or experience.

Subplot: While plot is the main story line, subplot is a side story that often counterbalances, juxtaposes, or somehow plays off the main story line, augmenting its impact or providing comic relief.

Point of View: Point of view is an essential decision in the telling of any story. It’s the vantage point from which a story is told. This is a narrative choice that dramatically affects the feeling level and impact of a graphic narrative piece, allowing or disallowing intimacy and encouraging or discouraging distance, thereby influencing voice and tone. A story can be told as if over the shoulder of an involved observer whom the reader cares for, with full access to this characters thoughts and feelings (limited omniscient perspective). It can be told from the vantage point of an omniscient God-like narrator (omniscient point of view). It can be told in an objective manner as if the storyteller were a fly-on the wall without access to the thoughts and feelings of any of the characters, only able to render actions and dialogue (objective point of view). It can also be told in the personal voice of either the villain or the hero of the story (first person point of view). Even the choice whether it is told in first person or third person makes a big difference on the impact of the narrative.

The advantage of a more personal point of view is that it creates intimacy; the disadvantage of the personal voice is that a narrator can be reliable or unreliable—the reader does not know to what extent he/she can trust the speaker’s voice and the speaker may only have limited access to the full scope and implications of the story. The advantage of a less personal and more omniscient voice is that it gives a sense of emotional restraint, which is rather modern; omniscient perspective also allows a God-like knowledge of all actions and thoughts and feelings, past and present, of all of the characters, so that an omniscient story can gain an epic scope.

Voice: Voice is the opposite of attitude. It is a writer’s authentic energy and style of telling a story. A writer should write as he/she speaks. A writer’s text should sound natural and engaging, even though accomplishing this might involve some labor. A writer must be in command of several voices. First of all his/her own, the voice that carries the narrative in a “confident and confiding manner” (Josip Novakovich). Then, like an actor, he/she must also be able to construct personae, authentic-sounding characters and narrators. If a writer has an authentic voice, his/her work will be recognized anywhere.

Tone: The attitude toward a subject and toward an audience implied in a literary work. Tone is a literary technique very intimately connected to the personal voice of the author. Tone may be formal, informal, intimate, solemn, somber, playful, serious, ironic, condescending—or many other things—in attitude. Tone and mood are not exactly interchangeable; tone sets the mood for a narrative story. Without tone, a piece of literature would evoke no emotion, and may seem very dull. It would likely be an official document. In many cases, the tone of a piece of work may change or evolve. Elements of tone include diction or word choice; syntax, the grammatical arrangement of words in a text for effect; imagery, or vivid appeals to the senses; details, facts that are included or omitted; extended metaphor, language that compares seemingly unrelated things throughout the composition, etc.

Literary Techniques: Personal essays can employ a vast range of literary devices. These techniques are conventions or structures employed to certain effect in literature and story telling. Literary techniques are important aspects of an author’s style, which is one of the five traditional elements of fiction, along with character, plot, setting and theme. Literary devices collectively comprise the art form’s components, the means by which authors create meaning through language, and by which readers gain understanding of and appreciation for literary works.

For a complete list of literary techniques that can also be employed in personal essay, see the Wikipedia links below. Let’s just mention a few: 1) Sound devices (alliteration, assonance, consonance, sibilance, repetition, metrical devices). 2) Figurative language (metaphor, personification, simile). 3) Epiphany (katharsis, vision, insight, transformation on the part of a character and/or reader). 4)Flashback and flashforward (leaps in time that take characters back to the beginning of a story or that jump ahead, projecting the outcome of a story).  5) Frame story or story within a story (a character in a story tells another story). 6) Irony (a discrepancy between expectation and reality. The three forms of irony are: situational irony, where a situation features a discrepancy between what is expected and what is actualized; dramatic irony, where a character is unaware of pivotal knowledge which has already been revealed to the audience (the discrepancy here lies in the two levels of awareness between the character and the audience); and verbal irony, where one states one thing while meaning another). 7) Juxtaposition (when the author places two themes, characters, phrases, words, or situations together for the purpose of comparison, contrast, or rhetoric). 8) Unreliable narrator (a technique in which the narrator of the story is not sincere or introduces a bias in the way he tells the story, thereby possibly misleading the reader, hiding or minimizing some events, characters or motivations. A child is a famous example of an unreliable narrator, since a child may not comprehend everything that goes on in the adult world around him/her.) 9) Foreshadowing (hinting at events to occur later, especially those important to the plot). 10) In media res (starting in the middle of a story for the sake of drama, then working backwards and forwards from there).

Wikipedia list of literary techniques:

On elements of fiction:


Janusz Grabianski, ill; story: Hans C. Andersen, “Gerda”

Chet Raymo: The Path


Chet Raymo (born September 17, 1936 in Chattanooga, Tennessee) is a noted writer, educator and naturalist. He is Professor Emeritus of Physics at Stonehill College, in Easton, Massachusetts. His weekly newspaper column Science Musings appeared in the Boston Globe for twenty years. This is now a daily blog by him. Raymo espouses his Religious Naturalism in When God is Gone Everything is Holy – The Making of a Religious Naturalist and frequently in his blog. As Raymo says – I attend to this infinitely mysterious world with reverence, awe, thanksgiving, praise. All religious qualities. [1] Raymo has been a contributor to The Notre Dame Magazine [2] and Scientific American.[3]

His most famous book was the novel entitled The Dork of Cork, and was made into the feature length film Frankie Starlight. Raymo is also the author of Walking Zero, a scientific and historical account of his wanderings along the Prime Meridian in Great Britain. Raymo was the recipient of the 1998 Lannan Literary Award for his Nonfiction work.

Raymo espouses a scientific skepticium for his beliefs:

“For the Religious Naturalist, darkness and silence are not the paradox, they are the resolution. The apophatic tradition ends in effective negation (God is not this, God is not that, God is not). Not only do we fall silent in the face of the Word, the Word itself dissolves into silence. We too walk a fine line; not between skepticism and faith, but between skepticism and cynicism. We try to stay firmly on the side of skepticism, open to whatever winds of wisdom blow our way, and as for knowledge of the world, we cherish the scientific way of knowing -– tentative, partial, evolving”. [4]


  1. ^ “Stonehill College”. Retrieved 3/21/2011.
  2. ^ “to The Notre Dame Magazine”. Retrieved 3/18/2011.
  3. ^ “Scientific American”. Retrieved 3/2/2010.
  4. ^ Chet Raymo’s blog 1/22/2013]

Major Works:

External Links:

From Wikipedia:



Research and the Memoir by Fenton Johnson, remarks delivered at the Associated Writing Programs 2012 Conference, Chicago, Illinois, March 3d: Fenton Johnson, Research and Memoir

From that talk:

“[I require that students’ first project be primarily or significantly research-based.] I feel it of utmost importance to give [my students] the tools to look outward – to situate themselves on a continuum of human history, in which it’s possible to balance respect for tradition with the need for growth and change.  I know that the inquiring mind looking outward will or ought to be drawn inward, only now with the perspective and the tools with which to undertake that more dangerous interior journey.”

“Memory, Fact, Imagination, Research: Memoir’s Hybrid Personality” from Solstice Magazine: Memoir’s Hybrid Personality, Solstice Mag.

The best that a would-be nonfiction writer can do is to use imperfect language to invoke imperfectly remembered events based on imperfect perceptions. –David James Duncan

{A} memoir is not about what happened, but why you remembered it the way you did. That’s where the story is. That’s what we talk about. –Kim Barnes

And more on Research and Memoir, Write Your Memoir in Six Months, about how research can also get in your way: Research and Memoir


Prairie Lights Reading Series (Iowa City)

Praire Lights Bookstore • 15 South Dubuque St. • Iowa City, IA 52240 • 319-337-2681 • 800-295-BOOK • Open 9:00 a.m. daily

“Live from Prairie Lights,” held at Prairie Lights Bookstore in Iowa City, is an internationally known readings series, which features some of the best up-and-coming and well-established authors & poets from all over the globe. Presented before a live audience and streamed over the world wide web, this long running series brings the spoken word from the bookstore to the masses.Most readings begin @ 7:00 p.m. Arrive early to assure yourself a seat. Link to the upcoming readings:
Live at Prairie Lights upcoming readings

The University of Iowa is home to the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, one of the most highly regarded graduate Creative Writing programs in the country. As a result, many distinguished as well as up-and-coming authors and poets come to Iowa City to give readings, usually at Prairie Lights downtown or at the Shambaugh Auditorium on campus. The Virtual Writing University Archive, featuring hundreds of audio and video recordings of emerging and renowned writers from around the world, documents the history of writing at The University of Iowa and its surrounding community. The collection is continuously updated with recordings from local readings. The project, founded by Jim Elmborg of the School of Library and Information Science (SLIS), is a collaborative effort between SLIS and the Virtual Writing University.

Writing University Virtual Writing Library ARCHIVE:
Writing University Archive

The Writing University live streams many of our readings here.

The Live from Prairie Lights audio archive is available here.

Iowa City PATV has a video archive of readings located here.


JOE BLAIR, March 6, 2013 – 7:00pm, Prairie LIghts

  • Joe Blair will read from the brand new paperback edition of By The Iowa Sea. This vivid memoir about the heartbreaks and ecstasies of marriage, fatherhood, and life in Johnson County, Iowa (Joe Blair lives in Coralville) charmed readers all over the country when it was released last year. The writing is remarkably direct. O, the Oprah Magazine, said that the memoir is “so raw and true you’ll gasp.”  And, Iowa Writers’ Workshop Professor Ethan Canin says that  “Joe Blair’s voice is uncommonly perceptive, startlingly honest, and powerfully moving. This is eloquence born of pain, sharpened by humor, and burnished, finally, by understanding and redemption.”

    Exquisitely observed and lyrically recounted, this is a compelling and often humorous account of an ordinary man’s struggle to live an extraordinary life. A finalist for the Elle magazine Reader’s Choice Award, By the Iowa Sea charmed critics, booksellers, and readers alike.

    Joe Blair is a pipefitter who lives here with his wife and four children. His essays have appeared in The New York Times, The Christian Science Monitor, and The Iowa Review.

JULIA PANDL, March 7, 2013 – 7:00pm, Prairie LIghts

  • Julia Pandl will read from Memoir of the Sunday Brunch. For Julia Pandl, the rite of passage into young-adulthood included mandatory service at her family’s restaurant, where she watched as her father—the chef—ruled with the strictness of a drill sergeant. At age twelve, Julie was initiated into the rite of the Sunday brunch, a weekly madhouse where she and her eight older siblings  did service in a situation of controlled chaos. In her wry memoir, Julia Pandl looks back on those formative years, a time not just of growing up but, ultimately, of becoming a source of strength and support as the world her father knew began to change into a tougher, less welcoming place. Part coming-of-age story a la The Tender Bar, part window into the mysteries of the restaurant business a la Kitchen Confidential, Julie Pandl provides tender wisdom about the bonds between fathers and daughters and about the simple pleasures that lie in the daily ritual of breaking bread.

    “Pandl’s Restaurant in Milwaukee is a Midwest tradition: What makes Julia Pandl’s memoir shine is not only its charm and humor but also its insider’s look at how high standards and love equals extraordinary food.”  — Jacquelyn Mitchard, author of The Deep End of the Ocean

    Julia Pandl was born in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, where she still lives and works. Memoir of the Sunday Brunch is her first book. When she is not writing and otherwise working, she moonlights as a stand-up comic.

TERRY TEMPEST WILLIAMS, March 12, 2013 – 7:00pm, Prairie Lights

  • Terry Tempest Williams will be here to read from When Women Were Birds: Fifty-Four Variations on Voice. In 54 chapters that unfold like a series of yoga poses, each with its own logic and beauty, Williams creates a lyrical and caring meditation of the mystery of her mother’s journals in a book that keeps turning around the question, “What does it mean to have a voice?”

    “The writing of Terry Tempest Williams is brilliant, meditative, and full of surprises, wisdom, and wonder. She’s one of those writers who changes peoples’ lives by encouraging attention and a slow, patient awakening.” —Anne Lamott, author of Imperfect Birds

    When Women Were Birds is a wise and beautiful and intelligent book, written for the women, men, and children of our times. It vibrates with the earned honesty of a great soul. It is a gift, passed on to readers with the same spirit of love and generosity with which it was first given to the author by her mother. A remarkable journey, a remarkable story.”        — Rick Bass

    Terry Tempest Williams is the award-winning author of Refute, Finding Beauty in a Broken World, The Open Space of Democracy, An Unspoken Hunger, Leap, and Red: Passion and Patience in the Desert. She lives in Castle Valley, Utah but makes annual trips to Maine.

Memoir Writing Prompts on the Subject of Transcendence


KATSUSHIKA Hokusai(葛飾北斎 Japanese, 1760-1849 Goldfinch and Cherry Tree 鶯 垂桜 1834

Here a list of writing prompts particularly tailored to this course. Please use any that are useful in your journal explorations. Read them all through at least once:

1) Write about a time you felt completely and utterly happy. Use sensory description–where were you, what did you see, hear, smell, touch, or taste? What did it feel like? Was there a metaphor for this experience? Describe.

2) Write about Light.

3) Write about Time and Timelessness.

4) Write about a time you felt completely creatively inspired and on fire.

5) Write about your relationship with religion. What religion did you grow up with? What did you love or hate about it? Describe some rituals and details.

6) What were your impressions of God, angels, heaven or hell when you were growing up? What are your impressions now?

7) What fills you with devotion? What does this word mean to you? How does it make you feel? What do you really want to surrender to in life, and what is worth something to you, and why? Describe.

8) Describe a moment of oneness in nature–a moment of exaltation. Be very specific in terms of the senses.

9) Concretely describe someone or something beautiful to you, using the senses. Use the “terrific energy of your eyes,” as poet Robert Bly calls it. Really observe. What makes something beautiful in your eyes? Perhaps connect the description to a musing about beauty?

10) Describe a time when a mundane moment felt holy. Be specific.

11) Describe an activity that has a zen quality for you–dishwashing, walking, cleaning, writing, a sport, driving, biking. Any repeated action will do. Describe. See if you can weave this into a piece of writing that reveals something about the importance of being in the moment, or how hard it is to be present with the daily moment? What does this incident or activity mean to you?

12) Describe a moment you felt you had a gift or super power. If you could have a super power, what would it be?

13) Go back in time and describe the first time you remember realizing that life was finite and that some day you would die, or that others you loved would some day die. Describe your rleationship to death. Weave in a concrete story or anecdote.

14) Go back in time and describe the first time you questioned your own identity consciously. Who did you feel you were? What did you feel you were? What was real or not real about it? Describe anything that comes up for you on this topic.

15) What does the word “reality” mean to you now? Describe? Weave in one or two concrete incidents that reveal your thoughts, one very abstract and subtle about an inner experience, and one outward and concrete, about an experience in the world, using the senses.

16) Describe someone who taught you something important that you still remember. It can be a grandparent or parent, a teacher, really anyone. What was the lesson and how did you learn? How did you hear it at the time, and how do you hear it now?


17) Describe an instance of subtle, refined perception. What did you see? Did you talk about it to anyone?

18) Do you believe things you never talk about because other people may think something is wrong with you? Make a list of your secret beliefs.

19) Talk about a time you were giddy and delirious with an ecstatic experience of some kind, whether it was love, dancing, staying out all night with friends, writing, painting, or anything else.

20) Talk about a time when you, your activity, and the product of this activity seemed almost as one–and there was no separation between you and what you were perceiving or creating, nor between you and the process of creation or perception. Describe a time you felt one with the flow of creation and entirely in “the zone.”

21) Write about a time you laughed until you cried. Describe the story in detail.

22) Write about a time you cried without being sad. Describe the story in detail.

23) Write about a time you felt happy without any cause or reason. Describe the story in detail.

24) Write about a time you gave something away that you cared about deeply.

25) Write about a time you received a gift that meant more than you could say.

26) Describe a moment in which you truly loved. What happened?

27) Describe an early memory of being read to. How did you relate to stories when you were young? When you were a child, how did you perceive the relationship between “reality” and “make-believe”?

28) Write a detailed and specific portrait of an older person in your life whom you truly love or loved. Describe what the person wore/wears, how he/she talks, habits, favorite objects and sayings, anecdotes. Be as specific as you can be. Evoke the person through your stories.

29) Write down a secret. Let it come out as rawly as it wants to, without editing. You don’t ever have to look at the page again, you can even burn it if you wish, but allow yourself to write down all of it, also the parts you most want to hide.

30) What kind of person do you want to be in your life? What great things do you want to accomplish? Envision yourself as if you are at the end of your life, describing to someone whom you have been. Imagine freely. Allow yourself to inhabit the person you want to become. You can take on an all-knowing perspective and voice.


William Morris

The soul has been given

its own ears to hear

things mind does not understand


Free Writing and Other Prewriting Techniques


Japanese calligrapher Tsuneko KUMAGAI (1893~1986) at work with her cat.

If you have trouble getting started with your writing or if you can’t seem to get your ideas organized effectively, prewriting techniques will help you. These techniques are practical ways to help you get started and generate material (literally, the exercises you do before you write). Always keep in mind that:

1. Your ideas are valuable and need to be communicated to your reader.

2. You need to find the best way to communicate your ideas to your reader.

These are a few useful prewriting techniques. All prewriting you do in this class is part of your journal work. Keep careful track of it!


Jot down every idea you have about your topic. Free-associate; don’t hold back anything. Try to brainstorm for at least ten minutes, and write everything down in a list form. There are various types of list you can create: lists of topics, main theme ideas, details to include, character study details, setting details, examples, arguments, points of comparison or contrast, reasons, memories, etc. You can use lists effectively when you are first brainstorming for ideas. You can also use them as you are fine-tuning ideas. Read through your lists and outline the ideas you think are most useful–then do freewriting on the topics (list items) you outlined.


Before you find a focus for any of your writing work, it helps to just sit down and write. Take out a blank sheet of paper and begin writing for at least ten to fifteen minutes. Write whatever comes to your mind. Don’t worry about spelling, punctuation, or grammar. Don’t change, correct, or delete anything. Just keep moving your pen with every new thought that randomly comes into your mind. Freewriting is a tool to allow you to connect to the right side of your brain. That is where the magic happens.


In unfocused freewriting, you just put your pen to the paper and let whatever wants to come out, come out. You don’t censor or edit or direct. You can even write: “I don’t know what to write” or doodle, or you can write about something that happened to you at breakfast that morning, a memory you have, whatever happens to pop into your mind. You trace the meanderings of your mind honestly from thought to thought. That is all you do. If you keep going without stopping your pen, you communicate to your mind that you are ready, you are listening. Your mind will be free to respond and speak to you in return. Doing a brief unfocused freewrite every day is a great way to get creative juices flowing and to clear up any of the debris that might be obstructing your creative channels.


Once you have some idea what you may want to write about, you can do a focused freewrite, where you use a specific prompt. As you write, you welcome all thoughts that happen to come, but when you find that you deviate too far from your original prompt or topic, you gently lead your mind back, just as in meditation you go back to the mantra once you’ve become aware that your mind has been engaged with random thoughts. This technique always yields very direct results. Do a focused freewrite for any creative idea you have relating to a possible portfolio project. Don’t start editing and crafting right away. First do a lot of freewriting so that your mind is limber and free. The best work comes from a deep place where you are truly connected to yourself.


Frida Kahlo’s Diary


Many experienced writers keep journals or diaries to help them organize their thoughts, to keep track of ideas and note down things they see or read or hear or experience. The more you record, the more you observe, so keeping a journal will generally make you more observant and help you generate ideas about which to write.


Place your general subject in a circle in the middle of a blank sheet of paper and begin to draw other lines or circles that shoot out from the original topic. Cluster the ideas that seem to go together for at least ten minutes. This type of prewriting allows you to visually see how ideas can go together under each cluster. It may also help you think of broader angles, of connections you had not thought of before. Clustering invariably helps you make connections that aren’t instantly evident. You can’t know all of the connections between your subject and related ideas unless you spin them out visually on the page. Clustering and mapping helps you outline further ideas for listing or freewriting.

This is what it might look like:




You can brainstorm on your own, but brainstorming is most effective in a group, where you can get the feedback of others. It involves offering ideas freely, without fear of criticism, allowing one idea to suggest another and another. By freely associating ideas, you can come up with new solutions for old problems. The trick of brainstorming is to allow the mind to make connections between ideas, no matter how strange the connections may seem at the time. No idea should be discouraged. Sometimes the strangest hunch can lead to the best work.


If you are more visually oriented, you can also doodle a drawing about your topic, and this might give you clues about what to include in your writing. Graphics can also give a very clear sense of the relationship between the wholeness of an idea and its component parts.


Analyzing your audience is one of the steps in the prewriting process. All writers have to know their audience. Knowing your audience will help you find your appropriate subject matter and also the appropriate form and tone to present your subject matter in. For example, if you are writing about your experience being a child, you can choose to tell your story to children or to adults. This will affect the word choice and sentence structure, the tone and style of your writing. You can choose whether you want a catchy and hip voice that would fit well in a glossy magazine, or whether you prefer a subtly powerful erudition that will appeal to the literary magazine market, or whether you want simple but emotional language that might appeal to readers interested in self-help issues, etc. Your audience determines dozens of details about your writing: vocabulary, sentence structure, formality, psychological appeal, organization and approach. If you are writing about a technical subject to an audience of laypersons, you must use a layperson’s vocabulary. If you are writing about a formal subject to an academic audience, your sentence structure should mirror the formality. If you are expressing an opinion to readers who will likely disagree, you should use different appeals and a different organization than you would with readers who will likely agree. If you want to be published in a literary magazine, you must adopt a more sophisticated language than if you publish in a small-town newspaper. Determining audience is one of the first things a writer does when beginning to write a new piece.


Ⓒ John Thomson, Luna Park, Porte Maillot, Paris, 1910’s, children audience

Memoir Writing Prompts for Your Journal

9667_4803550694078_1103050484_nBoy Viewing Mount Fuji, 1839
Katsushika Hokusai, (Japanese, 1760-1849), Edo period
Ink and color on silk

So far we have done freewrites in class about two topics: An early memory having to do with words and language, and memories of or musings about light.

Here you can find more writing prompts for your journal, which may help you gather ideas for your portfolio (especially for those of you who don’t yet have Old Friend from Far Away by Natalie Goldberg). Use the freewriting technique of not lifting your pen from the page for best results!

From “The Journal”: Write, Organize, Remember, Find:

Memoir Writing Prompts

Journaling Prompts


Beauties in the Snow By Utamaro Kitagawa, Japan

And here some College writing Prompts.

A few more:

Memoir Writing Prompt #1: Write about taking a long bath, a walk, a bike ride, or stroll in the snow, or any other mindless activity where your thoughts could idle. Use as many concrete details as possible (invoking all of the senses) and describe your emotions and/or thoughts during as well as the space you were in (setting).

Memoir Writing Prompt #2: Choose a random picture (from an album, a magazine, the newspaper, online) and write about it. If you have a family photograph, write about it. It would be wonderful to write about old photos of yourself. What do you notice, looking at yourself now? Do you remember how you felt then? What was your world like? How did you experience things?

Memoir Writing Prompt #3: Think of a place you visit everyday (or very often). Describe it in as much detail as possible. What makes this place important? How well do you know this place? What changes or stays the same through the seasons? What objects are there that you care about? Use all of the senses in your description.

Memoir Writing Prompt #4: Of all the possessions you own, choose one you would bequeath to a child or grandchild and write about why. Of all possessions you own, is there one that was bequeathed to you by an ancestor? Write down the story and describe the object. What do you know about this ancestor? Is there anything in their story that relates to yours? Did you ever meet the person? Any stories? Do you remember how the objects was given to you?

Memoir Writing Prompt #5: What is your favorite holiday? Tell a story about it. Describe all of the sensations that you love–the food, scents, tastes, decorations, meanings, events, etc. Are there rituals associated with the holiday? If so, describe in detail. Is there a sadness or special joy (or both) tied in with this holiday? Does it represent important family or personal moments? Tell as much as you can. Tell an anecdote or story.

Memoir Writing Prompt #6: Take an inventory of your purse and/or wallet or one of your pockets. What do the items inside say about you? Do you remember the items in your father or mother’s purse, wallet or pocket? Describe at least one other family member by listing the items in their purse, pocket or wallet in some detail. What is quirky and noticeable about these items? What stood out? What do they reveal about their owners?

Memoir Writing Prompt #7: Write about your family heritage. How does it affect who you are? Name a few of your ancestors by name and describe who they were, what you know of them, what they accomplished, what they created and were good at in their lives. Does their talent have any bearing on you? Did they stop short of accomplishing their dreams? Does that impact you now? Do you remember any sayings, any anecdotes, stories? What did the person look like, move like, dress like, talk like? What did the person teach you or try to teach you?

Memoir Writing Prompt #8: What is one of your quirky habits? Describe it. Why do you do it? Do you have one secret super power? If so, what is it? (It can be anything: the ability to really listen to people, to draw, to appreciate music, to say the right thing in awkward moments, to fly in your dreams, to write beautifully, to appreciate art, to see other people’s sadness so you can bring consolation.)

Memoir Writing Prompt #9: If you had to sum up your life in a list of images and metaphors, what metaphors would you choose, and why? Make that list. Then tell a few of the stories connected to the images and metaphors. Why are these images and metaphors important to you? What happened? What do they say about your soul, your life, your past, your present?

Memoir Writing Prompt #10: In what ways have you deviated from traditions or beliefs you were brought up with? How has this changed your life? What was your family’s religious background? What were you taught about God when you were small? What do you believe now? What do you believe about devotion, ritual, belief itself? What do you consider your spiritual quest? Do you have any unusual experiences you don’t usually talk about with anyone? Write them down honestly. No one else has to see.

We will do daily freewrites in class, which will further spur your ideas for your portfolio.

Tsuchiya Koitsu “Nara Sarusawa Pond”