Into the Fire: A Writing Exercise

Rowe, 2013

I just got back from teaching at The Sun magazine’s three-day writing retreat in Rowe, MA. The retreat is called “Into the Fire: The Sun Celebrates Personal writing.” In all my sessions, but particularly in the last one that I offered on Saturday night, I invited participants to walk into that fire to see what they might find. The title of this session was “Who Are You?” My objective was to make the participants aware of what they could gain in a piece of personal writing by paying attention to the multiple selves that aree in conversation on the page. By investigating our experiences from a number of vantage points and perspectives, we create more rounded characters of ourselves, and we also produce a more tonally textured piece of writing as the voices of the various parts of ourselves vibrate against one another.

I want to share the writing prompts that I gave the people who came to my session in case you might find them helpful for your own personal essays.

1.         Start by recalling someone from the past who calls up in you a moment of shame, guilt, or regret. Spend about five minutes writing from the prompt, “I can’t tell you. . . .” The objective is to get down the facts that led to the shame, guilt, or regret.

2.         Shift to something from your present-day life that memory of the past invites into the conversation. Again spend about five minutes writing from this prompt: “Instead, let me tell you about. . . .”

 3.         Spend about five minutes writing from the prompt, “When I think of the person I was then, I. . . .” The idea here is to look at your past self from the perspective that you have now.

 4.         Complete these two sentences: “Back then I thought. . . .” And, “Now I see (or understand) that. . . .”

 5.         Then complete these two sentences, applying them to either the past experience or the present-day one: “Part of me wishes. . . .” And, “But another part of me. . . .”

 6.         Spend as much time as you need with this final prompt: “If I could rewrite that moment (the one from the past), I’d. . . .” And “But I can’t. All I can do (or all I have) is. . . .”

When I write a personal essay, I usually have a story to tell, and it invites another story, one that I’d rather not tell because it makes me uncomfortable to do so. It’s that second story that makes the essay resonate. This exercise will leave you with the fragmented bones of an essay. The sections may not cohere until you flesh them out and rearrange them to create an essay in which past and present merge. The results can be startling. Many of the people who attended my session said afterwards that this exercise took them to significantly life-changing and healing moments of clarity. Isn’t that exactly what we’re after in a good personal essay?Isn’t that the reward for walking into the fire?


  1. Ruth Ann on June 10, 2013 at 4:13 pm

    And now I am totally sad~~all within a span of 2 minutes.
    Of course I was thinking along these same lines this morning.

  2. Ruth Ann on June 10, 2013 at 4:14 pm

    And why are you shoe less? Is it working for you?

    • Lee Martin on June 11, 2013 at 3:11 pm

      Ruth Ann, we were in what’s known as the “rug room” and it’s the custom to remove one’s shoes before entering.

  3. Naomi on June 10, 2013 at 11:52 pm

    I can attest to the incredibly powerful experience of doing this exercise — I was one of the very lucky participants that night. Thank you Lee Martin!!! I can see why your students have a fan page for you. (Smiley emoticon.) I could see, after we were done with this exercise, how the prompts work like a kaleidoscope — with each slight shift you get (and offer) a different perspective on one early event/person of your life. I’ve been writing feature stories for years, sometimes memoir-style features, but this gives me a whole new way of approaching a scene, of approaching what could be construed as an “untouchable” painful moment made human, tender even by giving it structured thought, attention, love even. Can I say that?! Well, I just did. What I learned is there’s some really good writing that goes on if you let compassion lead. It can be fierce indeed. So, thanks, Lee, for leading the way! You helped the conference live up to its title: “Into the Fire.” I think I did that. Still burning.
    Thank you,

    • Lee Martin on June 11, 2013 at 3:11 pm

      Hi, Naomi! I’m so glad that you found the exercise useful, and I thank you for taking the time to leave a comment. I like your analogy of the kaleidoscope and the way each shift provides a slightly different perspective until we’re seeing things in ways we never could have imagined. You’re so right about approaching those untouchable moments with tenderness, attention, clarity, and, yes, love. We can love our lives, even the untouchable parts of it, because each moment is part of the whole. Keep burning, Naomi, and please do keep in touch. It was such a pleasure to meet you at Rowe. I wish you many blessings as your journey continues.

  4. Naomi on June 12, 2013 at 12:20 am

    Oh, thanks so much Lee for your thoughtful reply — to my reply. It was such a pleasure to meet you, too, and to be an honored member of your classes. Truly. Thank you for the good wishes. I will definitely “drop in” to your blog. It’s great Stuff! I’ll definitely stay in touch, and save Whatnot for later. All the best to you, too, with blessings.

  5. Richard Gilbert on June 12, 2013 at 9:05 am

    You’re not only a great writer, Lee, but you write the best prompts! I have used others by you, and plan to use these, with students and they produce amazing results. I find myself weaving the results of these prompts into my own writing. Your consistent emphasis regarding one’s multiple selves, especially you “then” and you “now” and how they interact, has been so clarifying for me. Touches of the retrospective narrator enrich and deepen even the most dramatized nonfiction. If I was slow to get that and to use it in my own work, my students’ essays flowing from your prompts really opened my eyes. Using the layers of self overtly, carefully, and consciously works so well in cnf it feels like cheating.

    • Lee Martin on June 12, 2013 at 2:07 pm

      Thanks so much for that kind comment, Richard. I hope summer is bringing you many productive days of writing.

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