Writing Exercises from Brenda Peterson and her new book, “I Want to Be Left Behind”

Thanks to the wonderfully talented artist and musician Kellyn Sanderson who passed this little gem of a link onto the salon from the radio show New Dimensons on Redwood Community Radio, aired Saturday, May 22, 2010, Justine Willis Toms  interviewed Brenda Peterson on her new book, I Want to Be Left Behind: Finding Rapture Here on Earth. The interview touches upon evangelicals in the environmental movement paralleling Christian evangelicals, but, most interestingly, Peterson guides writers on honing self-perception and how to be critical of the self, how “to turn the eye” back on the writer, especially when writing from the personal “I.” She reviews several insightful exercises (below) and, with enlightened humor, discusses her process as a writer: “As I grow older I become more aware of my life as a divine comedy….You will discover the meaning of your life when you do memoir, discover the narrative arc that you can’t find in the first person…You can either be a writer or you can go ahead to Thanksgiving Dinner.”

Exercises

Write three pages using “I,” or first person:

  • about yourself from the perspective of someone who loves you
  • three pages using “I” about yourself from the perspective of someone who hates you
  • three pages using “I” from the perspective of someone who needs to understand you

This should also work for fiction, especially concerning a main character and for a critical character who has greatly influenced your protagonist. Think Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying, which is a quintessential piece that examines the death of a woman from the perspective of her sons and her husband. If you’re writing the novel or story from different points of view, you’ll want to show contradictions between relationships and perceptions. Be sure each character has a different take, a different reaction to the conflict, and differing drives and motivations in regards to one another. Use diagrams if it helps!

You can also apply this perspective to ideologies, philosophies, a song, a piece of art, or a movie. For instance, the first example that pops into mind is Rimbaldi’s legacy on the show Alias. Sloane and Irina Derevko devotedly followed Rimbaldi’s clues trekking to the ends of the earth, willing to kill to piece his mystical puzzle together. Jack Bristow never shared in their obsession because he had his daughter Sydney who occupied all his love and energy. The difference in approach complicates each character, their relationship to one another, as well as their relationship to self while also driving the story forward.

Another exercise

Write two pages starting with the prompt: “I surprise myself by….”

Click here for the entire interview

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