Pre-Writing for Your Memoir: A Creative Visualization

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SWBAT begin a first draft of a personal narrative, suitable for a college admissions essay.

Big Idea

... the mental exercise of visualization leads to great pre-writing ...

Introduction and Context

8 minutes

Many colleges and universities require a sample of narrative writing for admission, and, indeed, this type of writing is at the core of the Common Application’s Essay Question #1.  Also, our school’s English Department and the curriculum for this class requires students write a multi-paragraph narrative regarding a significant personal event (known as the “Memory Narrative”).  Today we will begin the process of writing a narrative that is suitable for both your work in my class AND useful for college applications (even if your narrative is ultimately longer than one that is acceptable for the Common App.).

During the class period today, I will conduct a “guided visualization” in order for students to recall the details of a specific memory.  A “guided visualization” is a common technique used in creative writing workshops, so participants can clearly, mentally map out a story or essay.  The lesson today will involve responding in writing, generally for short “bursts” of time, to specific questions I ask.  By way of taking the “long view” though, refer to my rubric for narrative writing.  (Generally, I do not refer students to the rubric until they have, at least, completed the visualization.)

In the sections that follow, I have broken apart the "script" into component parts for easy of teaching. However, the script (itself) is intended to be read in its entirety from beginning to end.  You can, of course, adjust your instruction according to your specific needs.

Teacher Script for Visualization (to be read aloud to students as they work)

24 minutes

[Just a caveat here before the script … I have found this lesson to work best in a computer lab or with a laptop cart.  There are advantages to students typing -- even the notes for this script -- rather than using traditional pen and paper.  I explain these advantages in my reflection.]

this section is written as a script for teachers … appropriate points for a pause are stated … and many thanks to my fellow English teachers from as I have adapted this script from a similar one for teaching The Color of Water ...

Today, I want you to think back to a time in your life when you experienced something meaningful and significant, something that contributed to your growth or maturity.  Any special event will do, but select one that has a clearly defined beginning, middle, and end.  That is not to say that any lesson you may have learned is not ongoing in its fruition, but it is to say that it should have a clearly identifiable time frame.  It is important that you choose a memory with a timeframe because you will narrate the story of your memory, the story of your growth and development.

Think of just such a memory … [long pause]

[check for understanding] Raise your hand if you cannot think of such a memory.  [take a few moments to quickly negotiate with those students who need help]  Now if you still cannot think of a suitable memory then pick one that you think could work, then go with this memory [pause].  Type/write a short description of the memory -- something like a “label” -- at the top of your notes.

As I take you through this visualization, type/write notes for each of the questions I ask … I will give you ample time between question sets to do so ...

Ok, now … I want you to “look around” in this memory.  Where are you? Here in Illinois?  The US?  Another country?  Are you at home or at someone else’s house, etc?  [Ask students to start typing/writing as they identify the place … explain that they should type/write in “chunks” that is to build their notes with “white space” between each question … there’s no need, really to “number” these questions -- the structure gets in the way of the “flow” of things.]

Are you in an “open” or “closed” space?  Outside or inside? List 3 - 5 objects in this space [pause]. 

What are the colors you remember here?  Muted tones or bright and vivid hues?  List them and the objects associated with them [pause].

Recall the people you are with (if any).  What do you see in their faces? Describe their faces -- wrinkled brow of worry, smile of joy, and/or sobbing, weeping crying?  What do the hands of the people near you look like? Describe what these hands are doing -- wringing, clapping, hitting, scratching?  [pause]  Are these hands capable and weathered or delicate and vulnerable? [brief pause]

What are you wearing and what are the people around you wearing?  Think of specific details of color, style, and fabric/materials [pause].  How does your clothing feel on your skin -- itchy, scratchy, wet with sweat?  How does the clothing feel (you think) on the skin of others in this memory? [pause]

Now, in your mind’s eye, “freeze” everyone and everything in this memory; reach out with your hands and feel your surroundings.  What do you feel?  Are the surfaces smooth, pliant, rough, ragged?  Are the people wearing cotton, silk, polyester?  What objects do you discern?  [pause]  Continuing, rub your fingers over all the different surfaces you can visualize. What do you feel -- smooth countertops, the glass of a car/truck window, the thick vegetation of a bush or tree, sand, mud, computer keys, a table-top, the glass of your cell phone?  [pause]

What position is your body in -- sitting, standing, squatting, falling, rolling?  [pause]

Just sit for a minute and watch the memory like a movie.  How does this memory make you feel?  [pause]  Now, pick one person in the memory and “reshoot” the movie of your memory.  How does watching from his/her perspective make you feel?  [pause]

What smells are associated with the location(s) of your memory? At the time of this memory, were the odors familiar or new to you?  Were they comforting aromas or were they pungent and unpleasant?  What is the source of any smells you recall -- overflowing garbage, boiling soup, baking chicken, grilling burgers, sweat, tears, perfume or cologne, decay?  Breathe in these aromas.  [pause]

Are you speaking, whispering, shouting, or tight-lipped during your memory?  What tastes (if any) are in your mouth -- the early-morning sour taste, the sweet taste of candy or dessert, the salty taste of sweat, a bitter taste? [pause]

Recall that you hear in this memory -- loud voices, the barking of a dog, a police siren, your friends soothing or schating words, the call of birds?  Do you hear any mechanical sounds -- the hum of an engine, the whirring of a machine?  Are there 

happy sounds or disconcerting ones?  Can you hear everything easily, or are you straining to make out the words of others?  [pause]

Take one last look around this memory, and let it play out like a movie in your head one last time.  Type/write any final details.  [pause]

Beginning the Draft Memory Narrative

8 minutes

Now make a final review of all the notes you compiled and smooth and/or clarify.  [checking for understanding] Would anyone like to share a particularly apt description, found in his/her memory?  [pause for several minutes and allow students to share-out with one another … obviously praise any exceptional examples or turns of phrase]

Ok … without thinking about it too much, write the first sentence of your Memory Narrative.  [As a great model I often quote the first line of Ernest Hemingway’s “The Snows of Kilimanjaro” -- “‘The marvellous thing is that it’s painless,’ he said. ‘That's how you know when it starts.’"  … this first line is among the most notable in contemporary fiction as it certainly pulls one into the story!]  I will walk around the class and read these first lines over your shoulder.  I want to point out and share the best ones I read!  Keep it short, sharp, and telling.  Pull us in!

[check for understanding by scanning each students first line and/or paragraph.]

Continue Writing the First Draft

5 minutes

Now that you have the first line in place, see how much of the rest of the first draft you can write.  I want you to write -- without stress, just write for remaining minutes.  Go.

[Let students write until the final bell, but as they develop their first paragraphs ask for volunteers and/or select “volunteers” to read aloud.]