Gish Jen on Tiger Writing

Jen takes a critical eye at her background, the cultural generalizations made between East & West traditions and her formation as a novelist therefore inviting us to do the same with our development as writers, artists, and observers of self and the culture(s) around us. Following are exercises created from yours truly to correspond with the different passages:

Author’s Note (ix)

  • How would you describe your cultural background(s)? What other cultures to do you negotiate with daily in academics, religious, sports, campus and off campus life, student organizations, etc?
  • What are the stereotypes you’ve come across for each of these above cultures?
  • What are the existing schemas that make up the culture and/or the stereotypes? Please detail specific historical, economic, geographical, gender, and social contexts that make up this schema.
  • Assuming your art can be a sport, cooking, or any activity you’ve practiced for an extended period, what is you intellectual/artistic biography? When did this life begin (i.e. before you were born, with your grandparents or your great aunt)? Where do you see your own intellectual/artistic development heading? What are the highlights and milestones? Dark moments? Who have been your biggest influences, such as teachers, writers, musicians, athletes, entrepreneurs, friends?
  • From her introduction on page 8, what are the cultural realities you have grown up with? Which ones have you come to terms with and how? Which ones still challenge and/or confuse you? Detail give specific experiences and instances illustrating you negotiating with these realities.

From Chapter 1: “My Father Writes His History”

  • What family space/place best represents yours family’s history, culture, and/or

    traditions? How? Why? When? Give as many specific and concrete details as possible. Where and what does your family consider home? How and why? Why not draw a map of this place? Be sure to note topographical points and landmarks of interest (hills, lakes, oceans, seas, industrial, farming, or urban).

  • What recent and/or ancient history has influenced yours? Why and how? Situate your readers geographically, in a specific era and place. Where and when was this? What were the political, cultural, economic, environmental, religious circumstances at the time that might have had a bearing on you?
  • When did you first realize your culture was different? How old were you? What was the experience like?
  • What areas were off limits and why? What was the imagined space, activity for your childhood self?
  • Is there a trait your parents and grandparents have valued that made your family survive and succeed and what is that? Can you attribute this trait to specific family experiences where members demonstrated it? Describe with as many details as possible.
  • Has your culture and background ever come up against conflict with a social/academic setting? How? Why? How did you respond? What adjustments did you have to make? Were there adjustments you refused to make? What did you learn about yourself? What did you learn about others?

From Chapter 2: “Art, Culture, and Self”

  • What are the “boxes” (95) of our time that you plan to raise awareness about in your essay? How do these boxes limit people? What are the consequences of those limitations?
  • If a writer is nothing but a questioner, what will you question in your writing?

Ch 3: “What Comes of All That”

  • What books have been the touchstones (142) for you? Why and how? What does Jen mean by the “American self” (148)? Do you have your own version of American self? If so, how does that self come up against other selves you may have experienced or witnessed with your parents, your friends, etc


Your Twenty Year High-School Reunion and Sifting Through Crushes Time Forgot

Echo loves Narcissus and Narcissus loves Narcissus by J.W. Waterhouse.

Your salonniere has been invited to her 20th high school reunion, and truthfully its not such a shock that two decades have come and gone since those salad days of shining youth. If anything the digits 2 and 0 seem smaller than the time and experience bridged.

Seeing former cheerleaders trading comments with stage crew from theater on the Facebook page, which certainly would have never happened back in the day, bring on a flood of memories. Remembrances of unrequited loves, lost friendships, and heart-breaking crushes now shake the senses. An urgency to net those days past have taken hold of this writer’s pen, and it’d be foolish not to capture on paper the years time forgot.

A painfully sweet exercise inspired for non-fiction and fiction writing is to reflect over  past crushes since childhood, starting from elementary school and spilling into college. Boy/girlfriends are different and should be considered in a separate exercise since crushes represent ideals that weren’t necessarily realized. Crushes aren’t even the ones who got away but admirations pined from a distance, possibly never broached, so the admired might even to this day still be caught in a fantasy bubble.

Go through each of your past crushes, capture as many details as you can about that person. What was it about your crush that attracted and stimulated you? What words and gestures were exchanged? Where? How? What small details kept that fantasy running and most importantly, how did the idealization of that person represent ideals about yourself that you wanted to attain at the time? How did your past crushes reflect the kind of person you wanted to be, maybe the person you thought you were, or the person you desperately wanted to become only if…

You could then compare these idealizations to the boy/girlfriends dated, the people you snagged or who snagged you and how idealizations came into flesh and bumped into the reality of ego.

Along the same lines, why not list all the “best” or closest friends you’ve had since elementary school up to college and reflect over what drew you to each other. What aspects about yourself did you confide in your besties and why? How did each best friend define who you were at each specific moment in time? Push yourself and your assumptions by examining how your friendships might have also been shaped by your ethnicity, your socio-economic background, your parents’ and your grandparents’ histories, and maybe how your crushes were ways to push the boundaries of race, gender roles, and socio-economic constraints. Friends were the reality and hopefully the sanctuary of the reality. Crushes could have been the escape.

In the twenty years that have passed countless memories have slipped with time. Any chance we get to ponder the many selves we’ve been, to remember the innumerable lives our selves have bumped up against is worth stealing away.


Tell me about the last person you kissed; or getting to know your characters, every hurt, flaw, and mistake

By Your Salonniere

Found on Tumblr by heroineoftheperipheral, these questions seem like excellent ways to know your characters better. Perhaps the responses could be the perfect introduction to your story, or a segue into the scene where protagonist meets antagonist. The possibilities are limitless. Have a go at this exercise and see what you come up with:

The same tumblrer also posted the below little gem, which is one hell of a story starter. Anytime you fall out of love with one of your characters turn to this, and you should get the flame roaring again. Think about how to spin each of the affirmatives into scenes, memories, love letters, emails, texts, phone calls, fights, make-up sessions, and dreams or nightmares for your protagonists. Have fun and let us know how it worked out. Many thanks to heroineoftheperipheral, aka Sydney, for what turned out to be brilliant exercises on character.


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

In Book Releases, Little Debauches, Masters & Doyennes, Writer’s Rituals on June 2, 2010 at 9:33 pm

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.”


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


Truths Must Be Bent: A Fiction Writer’s Lesson on Writing Non-fiction

In Little Debauches on December 27, 2009 at 3:11 pm

First and foremost the writer must remove herself from the narrative. That person you’re writing about may share the same name as you. She may even still have the same bangs and sneakers that you’re wearing or kissed the same boy sophomore year in high school, but, dear fiction writer struggling with non-fiction, make absolutely no mistake, that character is not you. She is an invention. She can’t possibly be you because she is stabbed to a two-dimensional canvas and must be fixed in a certain light, rendered and scrutinized from a particular angle. We know that the light shifts as time shuffles us forward and that angles are infinite, that the real body, living and breathing, waxes and wanes as the tides, but that person who you trace with pen and paper is not real. She is simply an adumbration, a shadow, an outline, a spirit that can almost be grasped. As narrator, you must be cool. Your interpretation of what happened to you in seventh grade must be handled with an icy touch, so frigidly cold that you literally freeze those moments you’re depicting into a suspended and crystallized state. Objectivity is the means in which you wield your words and images. Yet, its not the ultimate end. The point is to tell a story, so you must make decisions for the sake of that story. Truths must be bent, flourishes flaunted–only to emphasize the purpose and intent. Non-fiction writers, any experts out there, please stop us, if this counsel seems misguided.

Otherwise, remember that Memory and Imagination are married to one another. Sometimes they fight. One supercedes the other, and truth gets lost in the clash, but, like any working marriage, they know better than to fuss too long. A good row only feeds the writer’s fire, and, Fact, in the end, is only a well argued and beautifully crafted idea.


Quick Tips from The Writer’s Digest for Non-Fiction Neophytes

In Little Debauches, Writer’s Rituals on November 26, 2009 at 6:04 pm

From Kim Schwarm Acosta’s “Writing Personal Without Hurting Your Relationships” published in The Writer’s Digest’s Online Newsletter published November 23, 2009:

These tips gleaned from top essayists may have come too late for me, but I hope they can keep you from ending up in a similarly sticky situation with your writing.


Essayists have a distinct advantage over other kinds of writers: The accuracy of the details is often not crucial to their pieces. So make your best friend have red, wavy hair instead of platinum blond, or make her a dental assistant rather than a nurse. And know that readers don’t need to know someone’s name to get your message. “The point is not to out your friends,” says Marion Winik, author and NPR commentator. “That’s not the truth you’re trying to tell.”

Writer Corey Levitan changes identifying characteristics as general practice, but his first draft always includes real names and every “stinking, gory detail.” “If you start using a fictional name off the bat, you’ll get lost,” he says.

An added benefit to this rule is that many times people don’t recognize themselves in the final version. “I’ve written about girlfriends and they think I’m describing an ex,” Levitan says.


Sometimes your writing may involve descriptions that can’t be disguised. In this case, many writers show or discuss the piece with the person ahead of time…


Self-deprecating humor works every time, essayists agree, so look inward for writing fodder instead of relying on the missteps of others. “I try to keep the most embarrassing stuff about myself,” says Levitan, who began inserting himself into his stories years ago. “I realized I was leaving stuff out where I looked bad or was humiliated … but that’s what people relate to, because it’s human.” When in doubt, focus on your bed-wetting in the fourth grade, not your brother’s affection for wearing tights…

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