Releasing Skeletons to Give Your Characters Spirit

Warm up

1. The Color of Memory

This prompt is fairly straightforward. List 5 or 6 colors. It doesn’t matter the order. Pick a person you care about or has been influential in your life. For each color, write lines, a small stanza, paragraph or scene that connects a memory of this person with this color. For example, given the color green, you may remember a tiny detail about a green cloth your father used to clean his hunting rifle and a memorable hunting trip you had together. Write about that. The goal is to see how certain colors influence our memories and emotions. Do certain colors elicit certain sounds or smells or textures? Use synesthesia to stretch your imagination.

Example: Color memory for my grandmother

The stripe down your front denture so they looked real, but not as real as the urine in your night bottle from the cancer that took your female parts. I remember the day of your surgery, waiting in the hospital restaurant eating a pineapple sundae to keep me content. The bright light that flooded your house. In winter, the flame of the fire. Your liver-spots, you said, made you feel old…

Your Revlon cherry lipstick your husband asked you to wear even while camping like the women wore in those 1940s films. Georgia passion. Your favorite color and that last Christmas, the blouse I bought you. The pain you felt and the curse you spat when I asked you about the birth mother. We were blood related, you believed…

Your powder blue Mercury Monarch we drove across the Nevada desert. You later sold it to me for $1. Eyes after crying or staring too hard at the summer sky. Cat collars and Siamese eyes…

Blackberry picking. Your pies filling the kitchen…

Gold that you mined for and paid for your property. The rings in your ears. I still wear the identical ones you bought me. After you died, the Eastern Star ring passed down to me, later stolen in a house burglary…

Our conversation when I asked if I was Indian or African American. Shadows in the night, your ghost delivering a message…

2. Read Maggie Nelson’s Spirit.

Maggie Nelson

The spirit of Jane
lives on in you,
my mother says

trying to describe
who I am. I feel like the girl
in the late-night movie

who gazes up in horror
at the portrait of
her freaky ancestor

as she realizes
they wear the same
gaudy pendant

round their necks.
For as long as I can
remember, my grandfather

has made the same slip:
he sits in his kitchen,
his gelatinous blue eyes

fixed on me. Well Jane,
he says, I think I’ll have
another cup of coffee.

Copyright © 2005 By Maggie Nelson. From Jane: A Murder In Poems.

Writing Exercises

3. What “spirit” lives in your character? We all inherit certain physical features or attributes from someone in our family. How often have we heard people tell us we look just like an aunt when she was younger or a grandparent? You’ve got your mother’s eyes. You’re the spitting image of your great uncle… Perhaps your voice has even been mistaken for your mother or father on the phone. If we inherit DNA from our relatives, why shouldn’t our characters? Spend several minutes freewriting in answer to the following questions. Remember, no need to spend time thinking about what to write. Put the pen to paper and see what happens.

i. What physical features or attributes did you/your character inherit? From whom? Is this person still living?

ii. How do(es) you/your character feel about being likened to this person?

iii. Have you/your character ever met the person with whom they are compared?
If not, what interesting story have you/they heard about them?
If you/your character has met this person, write about an incident that has stuck in your character’s memory.

Don’t be afraid to plunge into the dark past or history of this relative. Skeletons in the closet “inherently”will add drama and intrigue to your story. Maggie Nelson’s poem, Spirit, has a haunting quality, and is even more chilling when the reader discovers it’s about Nelson’s Aunt Jane who was murdered in 1969. Has your character inherited the temper of an uncle who was a car thief and was killed in prison? Perhaps your character has the same gift for cooking as her late aunt who poisoned her husband and three children. Of course the relative doesn’t have to have such an extreme violent past, but don’t hold back your imagination.

Adding the Details

4. Now that you’ve written an incident about the relative your character is compared with, go back to the color memory warm up and read through your descriptions. Are there any descriptions that could be added to the incident to connect the relative and your character? Incorporate details that could add texture and an emotional connection to your piece of writing. Let’s say I’m writing about the car thieving uncle who was incarcerated. I might have one of the stolen cars be a powder blue Mercury Monarch. I might then go on to write a scene or story about how we drove the stolen car across Nevada. Find color memory details that could be added to what you’ve already written OR start a new story or poem based on connecting one or more details as your prompt.

5. Keep writing!

maggie Nelson1Maggie Nelson (Ph.D. in English Literature, the Graduate Center of the City University of New York) is the author of five books of nonfiction and four books of poetry. Her most recent book is The Argonauts, a work of “autotheory” about gender, sexuality, sodomitical maternity, queer family, and the limitations and possibilities of language (Graywolf Press, May 2015). Her 2011 book of art and cultural criticism, The Art of Cruelty: A Reckoning (W. W. Norton), was featured on the front cover of the Sunday Book Review of the New York Times, as well as named a New York Times Notable Book of the Year and Editors’ Choice. Her other nonfiction books include the cult hit Bluets (Wave Books, 2009); a critical study of poetry and painting titled Women, the New York School, and Other True Abstractions (University of Iowa Press, 2007; winner, the Susanne M. Glasscock Award for Interdisciplinary Scholarship), and an autobiographical book about sexual violence and media spectacle titled The Red Parts: A Memoir (Free Press, 2007; named a Notable Book of the Year by the State of Michigan). Her poetry books include Something Bright, Then Holes (Soft Skull Press, 2007); Jane: A Murder (Soft Skull Press, 2005; finalist, the PEN/Martha Albrand Award for the Art of Memoir), The Latest Winter (Hanging Loose Press, 2003), and Shiner (Hanging Loose, 2001; finalist, the Poetry Society of America’s Norma Farber First Book Award). Her poetry has been widely anthologized, including in the Best American Poetry series.