Matters of Life and Death: Part One

Looking through my grad school writing portfolio, I found this extended exercise to help writers take the basic principle of “Write what you know” to the next level. Some of the ideas I generated doing it the first time became strong, wonderful stories. Even rereading it brings up new responses and ideas. Over the next few days I’ll be posting it in sections. Hope someone finds it useful.

Translations: Matters of Life and Death

By Melanie Rae Thon

Part One: Brainstorming

Ask yourself the following questions. List as many episodes or moments as you can, avoiding just yes or no answers (you are looking to tap into specific memories).

  • Have you ever been close to death (your own or someone else’s)?
  • Have you ever witnessed or committed a crime?
  • Have you been involved in an accident?
  • Have you sustained serious injury or been critically ill?
  • Have you been the victim of a crime?
  • Have you ever been accused of something you did not do, or escaped punishment from something you did do?
  • Have you lost something that can’t be replaced?
  • Is there an incident in the life of a sibling or parent that seems disturbing and/or mysterious and/or miraculous to you?
  • Are there secrets in your family, stories that are known, but never discussed?
  • Are you capable of physical violence; and if so, how do you know?
  • Are you capable of focused, unselfish love? What revealed this to you?
  • Have you ever been trapped in a small place?
  • Have you been lost?
  • Are there any incidents in your life that have changed you (internally or externally)?
  • Are there any incidents that have revealed some part of your personality, especially a part you did not like?
  • Have you ever witness extraordinary kindness (in a stranger, yourself, a friend, a family member)?
  • What were the circumstances of your birth?
  • Have you ever feared for the life of someone you love, especially a sibling, a child, or parent?
  • Have you ever been surprised by your own strength or courage, or dismayed by your own failure to act with conviction?
  • Have you ever seen “the face of God,” ie. have you ever had an experience in the natural world that seemed transcendent?

Try this brainstorming exercise three different times, adding to the episodes and the details each time.

Thon adds at the bottom of this section: “Yes, I am using autobiographical material as a base for the experiment. But this is only a starting point. Any life becomes rich and complicated when you look at it closely. The questions you ask yourself can be asked of any narrator or any character. Recounting mysteries and turning points in your own life may give a source of ideas to tap for the lives of the people in your stories, or may open your heart to the people you encounter in life and in literature.”


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