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Exercise: Memorial

These exercises were written by IWW members and administrators to provide structured practice opportunities for its members. You are welcome to use them for practice as well. Please mention that you found them at the Internet Writers Workshop (http://www.internetwritingwor kshop.org/).

Prepared by: Gery Mitchell
Posted on: July 19, 2003
Reposted on: August 29, 2004

Have you ever read a memorial that was so moving you found yourself reacting even though you'd never actually met the person? This exercise can be used to practice writing either fiction or nonfiction--use a person (or animal) you know, or one of your characters (or even a famous character).

Even though a memorial is usually written in honor of a sad occasion, a life consists of so much more. Memorials are often humorous, but they can also be antagonistic, as in the case of someone who's led an infamous life.

In 300 words or less, write a memorial characterizing your subject's life.

To critique, focus on how well you got a sense of the memorial's subject.

Gery Mitchell's wrap-up
Posted on: July 28, 2003

This exercise certainly inspired some imaginative takes on the topic! It seemed the submissions that stayed "on topic" worked quite well and were often very moving. There was a tendency in some, however, to lapse into narration or story-telling rather than keeping the focus on characterization of the subject. I think that's natural for writers, so it was a challenge that wasn't always overcome.

This was true for the critiques as well--some stayed "on topic" (whether or not the submission brought the subject to life for the reader) and some merely responded to whether or not the piece itself was moving to the reader. Again, this is natural, so the challenge wasn't always overcome. If the right muscles get used, a good critique can be almost as much a learning opportunity as the exercise itself.

All in all, a really great week. Congratulations to all who participated!


Patricia Johnson's wrap-up
Posted on: Tue, 7 Sep 2004

Last week's rerun of the Memorial exercise produced creative submissions. Included were memorials to a wide variety of acquaintances - some to pets, some to casual acquaintances, family members, lovers, one memorial to breasts and belly, a memorial to the writer Allen Ginsberg, a memorial to lost youth, and a memorial to a summer vacation.

The most successful submissions handled emotions well. Emotions came through genuinely in a heartfelt way. Emotions were understated yet expressed in detailed anecdotes. Honest retelling of emotions without over sentimentalizing generated good memorial stories. Humor was used. Using emotion allowed writers to give a complete sketch of the person in a variety of moods, without idealization or deprecation. Some of the most touching memorials express the love for the memorialized through anecdotes and details and remind us that we are capable of love despite the frailties of human nature.

Simple retelling of facts was a technique used. A list of a person's traits was an effective technique used by submitters. Most successful submissions allowed us to remember similar events about the people and pets in our own lives. Details were sometimes represented in a lineal time frame. The anecdotes selected showed the person's character and personality. The narrator reached out to audience to reveal him/herself without overdoing his/her role in the story. Having the narrator tell how the person being memorialized affected his/her life added meaning to several memorial stories.

Using a favorite anecdote at the start can set the mood of the memorial. Memorials use many incidents and anecdotes to give a well-rounded look at the individual and examine the individual on several levels. Tone is important, and telling in a linear fashion is helpful. Memorials may not always be written from a friendly perspective.

Although the idea of a memorial is to remember the unique individual through stories and anecdotes, it may be wise to not tell too much. Leaving the reader wanting more generates interesting writing. Including actions of the person memorialized and using other showing techniques enlivened the memorials. Using the words and actions of the person being memorialized are effective ways to memorialize him or her.

Some problems to consider for the next time we run the Memorial exercise are to remember to write the memorial in a way that does not reveal more about the narrator/writer than the person memorialized. Second person perspectives are more difficult to read and are generally not the best method to use in memorial writing. Length of the anecdotes in this 300-word count exercise forces use of shorter anecdotes. Relaying irrelevant stories and bringing in too many characters weakens the memorial's perspective on the individual being memorialized.

As writers we glean ideas for characters and for jump-starting stories from reading memorials. We see effective and less effective emotions that instruct us on how to use emotion in our own writing. When writing a memorial it may be best to give a well-rounded picture of the individual, including faults, in a nonjudgmental way. Humor is a great tool to employ when used appropriately. Tributes are separate from memorials, and might be a whole different practice exercise.

Well-written memorials allow us to delve into our own experiences and emotions. It may not be easy to write a memorial if we are emotionally involved with the person. For that reason in this exercise it may be an alternative for some writers to use fictional characters. A good memorial can make the reader feel as if they knew a person they never met; or wish they had known the person. The most successful memorials bear rereading.

Patricia L. Johnson

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Modified by Gayle Surrette.