Writing Workshops, Retreats, Mentoring

Writing Prompt – September 19 2010

A Story to Tell

This exercise comes from Nina de Gramont, fiction editor of the literary magazin Ecotone and the author of a collection of short stories, Of Cats and Men. She teaches creative writing and composition at the University of North Carolina.

“Everybody has a story to tell. I’m not talking about epic adventures or grand escapades. I’m talking about anecdotes: the personal stories we relay in order to give people an idea of who we are. It could be a story from your childhood, something you don’t remember yourself but that you’ve heard your mother tell a thousand times. It could be something silly or triumphant that you did in school, or something fantastic and barely believable that happened to you and your best friend from high school.

“My husband has one from his college days about fracturing his skull: to impress a girl, he tried to swing down from a third-story window using the branch of a tree (Errol Flynn style, as he always says). I’ve heard him tell this story so many times that I could easily recite it verbatim, employing his tone and inflections.

“These are the stories that we tell early in a relationship: when we first meet a friend or a love interest, and want to convey not only a sense of our personal history, but of ourselves.

“A first-person narrative needs to do more than just fill the reader in on the action. It needs to be multidimensional – illuminating a character not only through the information she or he gives willinglyu, but the accidental information she gives through preoccupation and perspective. A wirter needs to create a voice that characterizes this narrator in a way she or he might not be able to characterize herself – at least not directly.”

Part One: Think of an anecdote you habitually tell when you first come to know someone – a piece of history that’s sad, strange, or funny. Make sure it’s one you’ve already told everyone who knows you, the one you’ve told a thousand times.

Now put it down on paper. Try to capture – exactly – the way you tell it: the words you stress, and the phrases that you use. It should read like a transcript of your own voice.

Read over what you’ve written. Look for clues to your own personality. Pay attention to what the anecdote says about your sense of humour, your personal obsessions, your core character.

(For the novelists in the group) Part Two: Next – ascribe the anecdote to one of your own fictional characters. Imagine the same event occurring to her, or him, and think about how this person might perceive and experience it. Write another first-person narrative about this experience, this time in the voice of your fictional character.

Note: This writing prompt comes from the wonderful book: Now Write! edited by Sherry Ellis

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