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Memory & Adventure 5: Additions and Variations

Image courtesy of Bob Doran

The following exercise comes to us thanks to the amazing Melanie Rae Thon, who has generously provided me with an expansive set of exercises that will be published here over the coming weeks. This particular exercise is the fifth part of a mini-collection, and the first part can be found here. They are meant to be completed in order, so go back and finish the other parts if you haven’t already. Enjoy!


Additions and Variations

This sequence might follow Step Three (Loving the whole miraculous world) in Memory & Adventure:

This part of the experiment is designed to help you focus on particular stories, to recover “lost” memories and sensory impressions, to discover compelling details, to confront the “gaps” in your recollections, and to make the leap from autobiography to fiction as you move between “happening truth” and “story truth.”

(The I Remember / I Don’t Remember / I Remember What I Don’t Remember sequence comes from Wild Mind, by Natalie Goldberg.)

I Remember:

Look at your “Matters of Life & Death” and “Moments of Wonder” lists.

Focus on the experience, impression, memory that seems most compelling to you today!

Try to remember as many details of the event as possible. Be specific! Focus on actual sensory  impressions, things you can perceive with your miraculous body. (When you try to remember, imagine you are watching a movie of yourself in the past. What do you see and hear? If you could step inside the movie, what would you smell, taste, feel with your hands?) Avoid abstract words (love, hate, fear, rage, sorrow). Just try to conjure your private movie through the sensory details.

Begin this meditation with the words I remember. Every time you get stuck, say I remember again. Repeat the phrase until another image comes to you. Don’t stop writing! Write for at least 10 minutes, aim for 15. Don’t worry about telling the story. The purpose of this step is to evoke images, to discover what you already know, to fill your mind and your story with as many vivid details as possible.

Let yourself leap along your Web of Connections (and far beyond it). Remember: everything that enters your beautiful mind can be included! Keep your starting point in your heart and mind, but give yourself the freedom to explore anything that emerges.

I Don’t Remember:

Begin a second meditation with the words I don’t remember. Try to list all the things you wish  you remembered but don’t. (For instance, one student could remember a gold brocade sofa in his parents’ living room, but couldn’t recall his dead mother’s face. The sense of loss in this juxtaposition is implicit. The reader doesn’t need to be told this is sad. We understand the bitter irony of seeing a piece of furniture more clearly than we see a mother.)

Sometimes saying I don’t remember makes you remember another detail. Don’t worry if you stray, but when you’re stuck, say I don’t remember and try to keep going.

Again, write nonstop for 10 – 15 minutes.

Try the I remember / I don’t remember meditations at least three separate times (in different moods, at different times of day . . . ). If several events seem linked, try separate meditations for each one.

[Variation: Try different positive/negative triggers: I hate/I love; I am/I’m not; I’m afraid/I’m not afraid . . . etcetera.]

I Remember What I Don’t Remember:

These experiments are designed to help you fill in the “gaps” of memory through imagination and research. This is the place where we leap (swim, crawl, scramble) from autobiographical territory into the uncharted landscape of fiction (or into a world of memoir that extends beyond our singular, isolated experiences).

(Again, thanks to Natalie Goldberg for her I Remember sequence)

Choose something from your “I Don’t Remember” meditations that seems essential to the story.

Try to render this scene or series of images as if you do remember. This is one of the small, constant challenges of making fiction, a basic part of the process that requires great energy and attention, and the willingness to explore the limits of your own imagination. (See Tim O’Brien’s commentary on this in The Things They Carried. I believe everything we read / write / experience has an ethical dimension, and O’Brien speaks to this most eloquently—as does Norman Maclean in Young Men and Fire.)

This is where you might return to the Memory & Adventure Document, Part 4: Necessary Research (Dedicated & Discovery Research).

After you’ve done some research, you might return to this document to consider some of the possibilities for Design & Movement. (See all the Design & Movement Documents for more details.)

The Linear Path: This sequence of experiments is merely an outline, a great simplification of a very difficult, complicated, solitary, time-consuming process! I offer it as one example of how we may begin to design coherent, fluid narratives from a series of explorations. This example would lead you toward a traditional design, which is not (is not!) the only way you might choose to render a story, a play, a poem, a fragment of memoir . . .

Read Billy Collins’s essay “The Vehicle of Language”

Linear Variation: Okay, now you have a dramatic event, a main character (the person you once were), a swirl of images, moments of wonder, and a list of things you wish you remembered but don’t. Use these explorations to begin telling the story of that event moment by moment. Keep asking yourself:

What happened next, and what happened next? Feel free to add details. You may wish to alter or fuse characters, omit images that seem extraneous, or create tension by compressing the time frame of the story. If there’s something in the I don’t remember section that you need to remember, you’ll have to imagine it fully, and render it as if you do remember. The “factual” truth doesn’t matter. Your challenge is to tell the story truth, to make that fictional world as believable as possible. Tim O’Brien says, “The thing about a story is that you dream it as you tell it, hoping that others might then dream along with you, and in this way memory and imagination and language combine to make spirits in the head.”

Try to do this draft quickly. Trust your intuition. If you get stuck, make a note to yourself about the details you need to explore. (For instance, I once had a farmer killing a weasel in a story, and I knew I’d have to do research to conjure that event accurately. So I sketched out the scene and went back to it after I’d done some reading on weasels and understood why they will kill every chicken in the coop.

You might, at this point, look at the Design & Movement Handout on Breach, Conflict, Crisis, Climax, Redression, and Reintegration. I find it enormously useful for understanding and rendering social and environmental dramas.

But again, all the handouts on Design & Movement will be useful! You may be able to identify six or seven (or more!) patterns within a single narrative.

Writer Turns Critic:

Wait a day or two. Read your draft several times. Where does it seem strongest? Where is it vague or abstract? Can you see your people, your environment, the weather, all the living beings and potent entities? (Have you evoked your world? Have you made the dream vivid?) Is the sequence of events clear? Is there drama (notes of tension, notes of resolution)? Does the piece move toward climax of some kind, or do you lose your nerve and energy and move too swiftly to resolve the piece (or simply bail out of the story)?

Let someone else read it, and have that person tell you what s/he understands line by line. (It’s great to have someone say, “I really like this piece,” but if the person doesn’t tell you what s/he understands, you don’t know how much of your story you’ve communicated. Are there gaps in the story, missing images or events? Have your reader ask you questions. Is there anything else s/he needs to know to make the story feel complete? Have this person read the story aloud. Try to listen as if you are hearing this tale for the first time. Which parts are most interesting? Can you enhance them? Are there places where the language seems cumbersome or muddled? It’s surprisingly helpful to hear our own words in someone else’s voice. Do some parts seem unnecessary? Could they be compressed or entirely
omitted without sacrificing clarity? Has your intuition led you to the right tone, design, narrative distance, language, and point of view—or do you need to make adjustments? (On several occasions I’ve discovered that the wrong person is telling the story, that another being’s point of view would be more interesting—or that I need to explore multiple sensibilities. I’ve often moved from first to third person (or the reverse, doing a true translation, i.e. honestly considering what it is possible to sense/say/know from a different perspective). Be flexible! Sometimes you make surprising discoveries if you interrogate your basic choices.)

For Brave Hearts: Endless Translations:

This final step is meant to help you burst through all the limits of your personal experience, to begin traveling in the space between the self and the other, to gain enough flexibility, compassion, and curiosity to move in both directions (i.e. to sometimes begin in your own experience, and sometimes begin by focusing your loving attention on living beings who seem strange or terrifying).

Now you have a fictionalized account of a true event. But maybe a weird thing happened. Maybe the fiction feels more true because you’ve changed details or people in order to capture the emotional experience. This almost always happens for me. It’s the magic of making fiction.

It’s why I do it. I want to understand my people and their stories, and sometimes the simple “facts” get in the way. (See Tim O’Brien’s brilliant book, The Things They Carried, especially the sections “The Man I Killed”; “Ambush”; and “Good Form” for an exhilarating example and discussion of story truth and happening truth.)

If you still don’t think this is “fictional” enough, try telling the same story from the point of view of another person in the piece (or from the points of view of several beings, even some nonhuman beings). How do the “facts” change when you shift perspective, when you challenge yourself to imagine another being’s sensibilities, memories, associations?

Try altering “yourself.” Imagine the same story happening in the life of someone of the opposite sex, or someone 10 years older or younger than yourself. Or, if you want to be more radical, take the primary emotion (guilt, sorrow, rage) and change all the external circumstances. Here’s an example: I once wrote a story, mostly autobiographical, about a girl who hates her grandmother. When the grandmother dies, the girl feels responsible. The primary emotion is guilt. Years later I wrote a story about a white woman who feels responsible for the death of a slave in 1858. My intimate understanding of guilt was one of many autobiographical sources I tapped to imagine this story.

There’s no limit to the possibilities of translation. A story that’s essentially sad can be written in a comic way. A funny story can become dangerous, even deadly. Keep exploring until you find the version you like best, the one that captures the story truth most vividly.

Experiment, have fun, love the dream. Writing is an adventure, a plunge into the unknown, a process of discovery. Take delight in the journey, and try not to worry too much about the goal.

Once again, all of these steps can be applied to fictional as well as autobiographical material! Every story requires some kind of research. The dramatic events in any being’s life are fused and transformed by what s/he remembers and perceives—and by what s/he creates through imagination.

This is not the only way to make fiction!! Each writer must discover his or her own process. But this is one possible way to begin, and I offer it to you in the hopes that some of you will find it helpful (now, and in the years to come).

Experimental Options

Sometimes the linear path is too confining. Perhaps you need to disrupt the time frame, moving between events of the past, present, and future. Sometimes the work comes in blocks of texts (modular design, see Madison Smartt Bell’s excellent discussion of this in Narrative Design) that create tension and texture through juxtaposition and exquisite attention to sensory impressions.

The options for experimentation are infinite.

In “How I Contemplated the World from the Detroit House of Corrections and Began my Life Over Again,” Joyce Carol Oates breaks the traditional narrative form and creates a story in sections entitled “Events,” “Characters,” “World Events,” etcetera in order to conjure the voice and sensibility of her young narrator, a girl who is unable to reconstruct her story in a straightforward way.

This is the key: if you want to experiment, you need to have sound artistic, psychological, and philosophical reasons for your choices. Sometimes you understand these choices from the start, and sometimes understanding emerges through the process of exploration. If you’re going to make your reader’s task more challenging, s/he needs to be rewarded.

When I read John Wideman’s story “Fever” for the first time, I only understood about 10% of it, but that 10% was more riveting and emotionally satisfying than almost any story I’d ever encountered. Each time I reread the story, I comprehend more; each re-immersion is spiritually enlightening.

So yes!

Be playful! Be daring! Then ask yourself why you’ve done what you’ve done and decide if the effects are the ones you desire.


Melanie Rae Thon Author PhotoMelanie Rae Thon’s most recent books are Silence & Song (September 2015) and The 7th Man (November 2015). She is also the author of the novels The Voice of the River, Sweet Hearts, Meteors in August, and Iona Moon, and the story collections In This Light, First, Body, and Girls in the Grass. Thon’s work has been included in Best American Short Stories (1995, 1996), three Pushcart Prize Anthologies (2003, 2006, 2008), and O. Henry Prize Stories (2006). She is a recipient of a Whiting Writer’s Award, two fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Mountains & Plains Independent Booksellers Association Reading the West Book Award, the Gina Berriault Award, the Utah Book Award, and a Writer’s Residency from the Lannan Foundation. In 2009, she was Virgil C. Aldrich Fellow at the Tanner Humanities Center. Originally from Montana, Melanie now lives in Salt Lake City, where she teaches in the Creative Writing and Environmental Humanities programs at the University of Utah. She is a 2016 Guggenheim Fellow in Fiction.

Memory & Adventure 4: Dedicated and Discovery Research

Image courtesy of Claire Thompson

The following exercise comes to us thanks to the amazing Melanie Rae Thon, who has generously provided me with an expansive set of exercises that will be published here over the coming weeks. This particular exercise is the second part of a mini-collection, and the first part can be found here. They are meant to be completed in order, so go back and finish the first three if you haven’t already. Enjoy!


Necessary (Dedicated) Research

By now it should be obvious you will need to do an enormous amount of research in order to evoke the whole environment and your particular experience(s) within that environment as vividly and precisely as you wish! And you will have to make choices about what is important and what is extraneous.

Exercise Four is another extensive list of all the research you need/want/hope to pursue, and the kinds of sources you might consult.

Every project requires research of some kind. Sometimes we need to do “traditional” research, go to the library or cruise the web looking for information. Even writers like Nancy Venable Raine, Mary Oliver, Norman Maclean, John Wideman, Leslie Marmon Silko, Tim O’Brien, and Terry Tempest Williams who work with autobiographical material must do a great deal of research (exploring various texts, interviewing family members, learning the history of their communities, talking to other victims of trauma or illness, reading their own journals, looking at photographs, watching birds, exploring the environment, etcetera) in order to make their stories and poems vivid and accurate.

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On the Ingrained Biases of the Literary Canon

Image courtesy of CCAC North Library

The books of the literary canon were written almost exclusively by straight men of European descent. There are exceptions: a handful of Russian authors, a few white women, a smattering of hispanic authors, and so on. But these make up a fraction of a fraction of the list of “classic books.”

So, let’s just start by saying, you know, this is a problem. And it’s a problem not just because of the exclusionary qualities, but because it’s a self-perpetuating issue. We teach students that books of a certain nature are “good,” which informs the definition of “good books” for those who will define the literary canon as it continues on to new iterations. And not just a problem because it’s a self-perpetuating issue, but because it threatens to limit one of the core benefits of reading as a practice: The cultivation of empathy through increased awareness of experiences dissimilar from our own.

But let me step back for a second and talk at this from a few different angles.

My Experience with the Canon

I want to be clear that the books in the canon are worthy entries, and there have been only a handful that I’ve regretted reading. Some of my favorite books (Picture of Dorian Gray, The Great Gatsby, Brave New World, etc.) are classics written by white dudes. So, really, I’m feeling more like a concerned citizen here than a rioter. But I also feel I have enough perspective that I can speak on this issue.

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Memory & Adventure 3: The Whole Miraculous World

Image courtesy of Groman 123

The following exercise comes to us thanks to the amazing Melanie Rae Thon, who has generously provided me with an expansive set of exercises that will be published here over the coming weeks. This particular exercise is the third part of a mini-collection, and the first part can be found here. They are meant to be completed in order, so go back and finish the first two parts if you haven’t already. Enjoy!


Loving the Whole Miraculous World

I have come to believe in the underlying interdependence of all living beings through time and across space. Thich Nhat Hanh shows us that no matter where we begin, even if it is with something as ordinary as a piece of paper, we will be able to find a pattern of inter-dependence that connects this being or this object with every other being or element or form in the universe! In the film What Darwin Never Knew and in the essay “The Germs of Life” we encounter the idea that every life form on earth is a biological relative of every other form!

Wherever you see life—that is you! The dissimilarity, the strangeness between humans and other creatures is here removed!
~ Albert Schweitzer
from First Sermon on Reverence for Life

In The Tiger, John Vaillant investigates a complicated web that includes the ways political, environmental, spiritual, technological, and historical circumstances ultimately influence individual lives (tigers, trees, humans, et al!) in a remote area of Russia.

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Memory & Adventure 2: Moments of Wonder

Image courtesy of Eryne G.

The following exercise comes to us thanks to the amazing Melanie Rae Thon, who has generously provided me with an expansive set of exercises that will be published here over the coming weeks. This particular exercise is the second part of a mini-collection, and the first part can be found here. They are meant to be completed in order, so go back and finish “Matters of Life and Death” if you haven’t already. Enjoy!


Moments of Wonder

Try another brainstorming list, this time focusing on Moments of Wonder. Think about times when you have been astonished by something you encountered out in the mysterious world and/or deep in your own secret environment (clouds, snow, cold, mosquitoes, bees, cliffs, madrona trees, a river running gold with tannin, a coop full of pure
white pigeons, subalpine firs that had become snow ghosts (whose lower limbs were taking root in soft dark earth deep beneath snow even as you watched them), a man with hooks for hands who came to your rescue, reflections of trees in a river with fish swimming in the treetops, singing whales, a limestone cave, a howling coyote . . . ).

Your examples may focus on an encounter with single being (e.g. the coyote across the arroyo), or a whole experience (e.g. traveling out to sea, listening to—or even swimming with—the whales).

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Memory & Adventure 1: Matters of Life and Death

Image courtesy of Brendan Ross

The following exercise comes to us thanks to the amazing Melanie Rae Thon, who has generously provided me with an expansive set of exercises that will be published here over the coming weeks. This particular exercise is not meant to be completed all at once. Rather, it’s a set of lists, meditations, responses, and ways that you can move those earlier portions into creative work. Enjoy!


Wilderness always speaks to human beings of Transcendence: in the widest possible sense it says, You as a Human Being are part of a System which is not just about your needs and your concerns. Like it or not, you’re part of something immense and very mysterious.
~ Doctor Rowan Williams, Archbishop of Canterbury
In Part Five of the film series Planet Earth

Memory and Adventure
Entering the Wilderness: Impermanence, Interdependence, and Compassion

I hope this series of meditations will inform your work directly or indirectly. Individual choices about form, genre, balance, etcetera are all spectacularly open! Please feel free to translate/transform/re-imagine these explorations in any way that makes sense for your unique explorations. My questions are meant to open, not confine—to suggest possibilities that lead you into your own territory with more curiosity and awareness, more passion and wonder.

This experiment is designed to “break down syntax,” to jolt us outside the comfortable parameters of our rehearsed autobiographical narratives, to help us appreciate the complexity (and chaos) of our own lives and make us more responsive to (and curious about) the wide variety of human (and more-than-human) experience we encounter in fiction, memoir, poetry, drama, film, the nightly news, our daily lives …

(with thanks to Anna Deavere Smith for the three questions that first inspired this meditation)

Part 1: Brainstorming
Matters of Life & Death

Have you ever been close to death? (Your own, or someone else’s—a loved one’s, or a stranger’s?) Think of illness, injury, wild risk, accident. Consider the deaths of non-human beings (birds, deer, fish, insects, saguaros, cities, rivers, glaciers, frogs, lilies—a golden spruce, a belovéd chinchilla—a creature you dissected, an egg you consumed, a pork chop you devoured . . . ). List as many as you can. Some may exist in “clusters.” Consider times when you feared for the life of someone / something you loved, whether or not that being was in real danger. Think about times when you felt responsible for the harm that another being suffered.

Have you ever witnessed or committed a crime? Have you been the victim of a crime? Have you ever been accused of something you did not do, or escaped punishment for something you did do? What’s the worst thing you’ve ever done? What’s the worst thing that’s ever been done to you?

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