Writing Prompt Week! Wednesday: Richard Hoffman

Chickadee dears, here is the 3rd offering of our Writing Prompt week. Poet and memoirist Richard Hoffman was a professor of mine at Emerson College. I was in one of his non-fiction courses, and a bit of a mess at the time, writing about things in my life that had gone, shall we say, off the rails. One day, Richard took me aside and said “Don’t plunder your life for poetry.” I’ve never forgotten that. There is a difference between plundering your life and investigating your experiences. The  exercise that Richard offers today articulates just such a difference. He contributed this prompt to a wonderful book of exercises called Now Write: Nonfiction (Tarcher) edited by Sherry Ellis. Try out the prompt, then get ye to a bookstore, and find Richard’s new memoir, Love and Fury. — Sophie Klahr, poetry editor 



This exercise is designed to establish an authorial voice and generate the first draft of a one-person scene that will encompass the character I’s wishes, fears, worries, regrets, hopes.

You will see that, in addition to creating a sense of your character’s interiority, you are being directed to entertain the counterfactual, the conditional, what did not happen but could have under other circumstances. (A cautionary note: this interior point of view, coupled with the sense of “what might have been” can be a powerful experience. Grief is not an uncommon response while doing this exercise.) You are also being prompted to present the space itself and the objects in it as sensory experience for the reader.

First write each of the following directions on a single index card. Number each card on the back. (Note: all directions refer to “you” in the scene you’re creating, not you the writer doing this exercise. Likewise, “here” means the space in which the scene occurs, not the space where you are doing this exercise.) 

  1. Enter the space. Be sure to use an action verb.
  2. Where is the source of light?
  3. What special or important object is there with you?
  4. Notice what you are wearing.
  5. Why are you wearing these clothes?
  6. What can you hear from here?
  7. What can you hear if you listen very carefully?
  8. Mention the position of your body.
  9. Where were you before you arrived here?
  10. Who was there?
  11. Describe your interaction with that person or persons.
  12. Was that interaction what you would have wanted?
  13. What do you wish had happened?
  14. Change the position of your body.
  15. Reach out and touch or handle an object in this space.
  16. What is your biggest fear?
  17. When you leave this space, where will you go?
  18. Is there someplace where you would rather be going?
  19. Why?
  20. Shift the position of your body again.
  21. When was the last time you ate?
  22. What did you eat?
  23. Are you hungry?
  24. What do you know now, at this writing, at the age you are now, that it would have been useful to know then?
  25. Take a deep breath. What do you smell?
  26. How will you know it’s time to leave this space?
  27. How will you prepare yourself to leave?
  28. What did you know then, what were you sure of, that you see now, at this writing, at the age you are now, to be false?
  29. Can you still hear what you heard before? Any new sounds?
  30. What has changed since you entered the space?
  31. Prepare to leave. Begin by moving your body.
  32. And, finally, exit the space.

Arrange the cards face down, in order, with the number one card on top.

Now, think of a crucial moment of solitude in the story you wish to tell. Or choose a place where you were often alone, perhaps a place you retreated to for solitude: a bedroom, up a tree, by a creek, under the porch. When you have chosen the place, turn over the first card and follow the directions. Continue through all thirty-two cards. Do not skip ahead.

Of course once you are finished, and after a suitable “cooling off” period, you are free to depart from the instructions by deleting what doesn’t serve the scene that’s emerged, adding detail, moving things around. Often the resulting scene, even if it turns out to be a minor one, works as a kind of keynote since it sets a precedent for the portrayal of a multidimensional self-aware first person protagonist, the strength of any good memoir.

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