Friday, March 20, 2009

Prompts in JP

We started teaching the Memoir Project in Jamaica Plain last week. For the first time in several months, we have a group of participants who really want to write. They write in class for twenty minutes at a time. That's not easy. Try it. And they have great stories. One woman is writing an incredible account of how she became a ward of the state at the age of 12 and went into foster care. Her description of her first subway ride in Boston, alone, with no idea of where she was going, is chilling. She ended up at a wonderful home for girls  in the Back Bay run by a woman called "Mother Agnes." Another woman was a young nurse during Boston's last polio epidemic in the mid 1950s. She worked with the most debilitated patients, those who depended on an iron lung to breathe through the night.

I've come up with new prompts for them because they're so inspiring. In general, people have a better time starting a writing project if they start with a list. All writers use lists because they are so much easier to generate than paragraphs of perfect sentences.

This past week I asked them to make a list of every job they've ever had. They had no need to limit themselves to paid work. They should list every job they had in the family, every formal role they played at home as well. Once they'd made a list, I asked them to focus on one job, perhaps a favorite job or least favorite, and describe it in more detail. Then I asked them to describe a memorable co-worker. Finally, I asked them to offer written advice to anyone entering the workforce now. Our participants love giving advice, and they're pretty good at it, too. 

Well, the stories came pouring out of them. One man described his jobs shining shoes and selling magazines as a very little boy and how he was expected to strip off his clothes when he came home to prove he wasn't hiding money from his parents. Another woman wrote about her first after school job, which was helping an elderly shut in bake cakes and pastries to sell. She remembers what she baked, how much money she made and what she bought with it. 

Try it. It works.

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