Finding Starts in Personal Essay Writing, Part 2

writing-essaysIn the previous post, noted essay expert Sheila Bender introduced the concept of essay writing as an adventure of personal discovery. In this second of three parts, she continues with two more freewrite prompts.

A Second Freewrite

After writing from where you are, imagine yourself inside a place you can’t really write from, the pantry in your kitchen, a drawer, or perhaps a window box:

If I were sitting in the window box under the leaves of the trailing geraniums, I would look down at the impossible height and draw in my legs under my chin.  Would I feel cramped under scalloped leaves, next to the segmented stems?  Would a pink petal form a little rug at my feet or blanket my knees?  Nothing could protect me from the onrush of the watering hose, the torrents, the floods.  Would I sink into the spongy earth to arise like a swamp monster or get washed overboard to a new destiny, landing perhaps upon the heavenly bamboo or the thorny bougainvillea?

A Third Freewrite

Now open something in print and let your eye fall somewhere on the page. Use the words your eye falls upon as an opening for your writing. When I did this exercise last, I randomly opened William Kittredge’s collection of essays, Who Owns the West? to page 67 and pointed to these words:

Tess had worn a little path around the grave. She went down there and talked to him, she said. "I tell him the news," she said.  "Like all of us, Ray was given to a love of gossip and scandal.”

Knowing this passage was about mourning short story writer Raymond Carver, whose stories I had recently taught to an intro to fiction class, I wrote:

Like all of us, author Raymond Carver was given to a love of gossip and scandal. Although I never knew him, I’ve read and enjoyed his short stories, even taught one in particular, “The Cathedral.”  In this story, a narrator tells about the overnight visit of his wife’s former boss, a blind man from Seattle.  The narrator is a narrow-minded man with little real connection to others, and in the course of the evening, he does enjoy a moment of pure human (and therefore cosmic) connection with the blind man as they draw a cathedral together.  And gossip does seem to be a way of thinking in this story—the narrator uses all he has heard from his wife about this man to build notions about blindness that keep him from entering the moment.  I can certainly identify since I keep myself from living in the moment by leaning on structures in my mind.  One of those is the to-do list I seem to carry perpetually:

There are clothes at the cleaners waiting to be picked up, food to be found at the market, a resume to update and send out, and evening plans that require I bring a dish for the meal.  I have a set of papers to grade and more email than I want to answer at the moment waiting on the spool.  The cats are out of food and I have forgotten to cut their nails this month so they are sharp and leave scratches when they launch from my lap after a moth or a fly.  The outdoor plants need watering, on all three levels of my home.  The jasmine is in bloom.  I should fertilize.  Measure, mix, fill the jug, lift the heavy thing and hear the water rush into the pots.  Too much overflow in the dishes beneath the plants. Must empty that. They don’t like to get their feet wet, my horticultural friend reminded me.  No blooms on the bougainvillea, perhaps over watering.  Container gardening—there are rewards but the plants suffer if I am not attentive—cold roots, wet roots, underfed, overfed.  White fly, aphids. Bites out of leaves from something else I haven’t seen.  Somehow, the plants survive.  Like me!

Next post: In “Mining the Three Freewrites”, Sheila will conclude with instructions on how to tap the power of these freewrites to find a “new way of knowing” on the page.

Sheila Bender is the author of over a dozen books, including her newest Behind Us the Way Grows Wider: New and Collected Poems, A New Theology: Turning to Poetry in a Time of Grief, Creative Writing Demystified and Writing and Publishing Personal Essays. To learn more about her books and her online classes and instruction, visit


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