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BLOG: Writers of the Lost Arc

Writing Prompt: Transforming Family Saga into Story

Here is one of my favorite writing prompts. I love it because it always generates great stories even from people who wouldn't ordinarily put pen to paper, and because it messes with your mind, makes you ask, what's fiction, what's fact, what's history, what's story, what's fiction, what's fact. Maybe we should just call it faction. I've done this one many times in my writing workshops, with the young and the old and the very blocked. It's tried and true.

The first part of the exercise was inspired by something I'd read in Writing Down the Bones. Make a list of events that happened in your family before you were born. You know, the kind of stories that get told and retold at family gatherings, stories and snippets of stories passed down through the generations: The time Grandma Hannah crossed Europe one winter in a covered wagon with eleven children, the time Tante Ruthy stole her sister's boyfriend and married him, the marriage match that was made in a barn, the uncle who was the first to put many songs on a single record, the soup that saved a grandfather's life. Preserve these tales in written form. Treat them as prized family heirlooms to be handed down, never to be forgotten. The past is precious.

But you can go a few steps further. Take one of the events on your list and retell the story as if you were there in that moment in time. Choose anyone who intrigues you --Grandma Hannah or the wagon driver or a child held on a big sister’s lap -- and then inhabit that character. "I hitched up the wagon and slapped those kids inside. My fingers ached from cold. I had no idea when Ben would be joining us. Three months ago my husband had been drafted into the Polish army. He shot off two toes to avoid the draft. It didn't help. They didn't even let him take his..." What you’re doing is re-imagining the story. In this way, the facts of our past, or our ancestors’ past, can "shift and slip into a lovely fictional unreliability," as Colm Toibin put it in his new collection of essays.

After you've written for ten or fifteen minutes, allow yourself to experiment with point of view. If you wrote the story in first person, switch to third. "She hitched up the wagon and etc." Give yourself the freedom to imagine the person's thoughts. You're not recording the plain, hard truth here, but using memory as a spring board to bring characters to life. Often, it's the switch to third person telling that really liberates the story. The shift may seem tiny but the effect can be huge, eliciting different details, texture and tone. Let yourself be surprised. A number of people got their very first story launched into the world with this exercise.

Try it out. I’d love it if you'd post your piece (under 200 words).
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