by | Sep 24, 2017 | On writing | 6 comments

By Francine Mathews

One of the teachers who made a difference in my son’s life contacted me this past summer and asked if I would mentor a young writer during the coming school year.

I agreed, because I know how important it is to have the support of an adult when your dream is impossibly big, particularly an adult who seems to live that dream. It’s important, too, to share the compulsion to write; otherwise, a kid can feel like a weirdo. Writers, like most people governed by unruly impulses, are never entirely in control of themselves; the words govern. Growing up, I had to write down what happened in order to understand it. I still do. But even for those of us born word-drun, fiction can feel like an enormous enterprise, replete with the possibility of failure. The overwhelming aspects must be contained and managed or the whole sorry art is abandoned before it has begun. 

Hence, the value of exercises.

Before our first session, I sent my mentee a list of twelve questions. Here they are:

1. If you could live in any other time than this, what would it be? (past or future, but it’s fine to say none.)

2. If you could be someone other than yourself, who would that be? (different gender? Different ethnicity? Different life form?)

3. What sort of person do you find difficult to understand or befriend?

4. What qualities in other people attract you?

5. What qualities in other people intrigue you?

6. What qualities in other people repel you?

7. What frightens you? (about others, about the world, about yourself.)

8. what makes you feel safe or happy?

9. What makes you feel powerful?

10. What makes you feel weak?

11. What skill would you like to master that you have never attempted before?

12. If you could live anywhere else, where would that be?

Notice that these are all personal questions. Why, you may ask, was I offering a psychological survey to a young person who just wants to make things up?

Because all fiction is rooted in the mind and heart.

My mentee’s answers were thoughtful and revealing. In the hour we spent reviewing them, we were able to pinpoint aspects of possible protagonists and antagonists in a future story; themes of personal values and integrity that matter to her; time periods and places that might serve as settings; and the psychological conflict or fears that may underly her story. She could imagine relationships between people with vastly different personalities, warring impulses that determine outcomes. Suddenly, she was able to contemplate a mental landscape and populate it, rather than despair over a blank and intimidating page.

Do I use such exercises myself before drafting the outline of a novel? Not formally. But similar considerations shape everything I do. I drift through time in search of stories, and find them in places and people who may only slightly resemble myself. Attempting to understand their motivations, fears, appetites and values–and my own response of fascination or revulsion–is critical to creating their worlds. Because every character, even those I abhor, springs from my own mind. That’s part of the terror of writing.

Pick a question, any question–and answer it.
You just may have started down the road to fiction.



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  1. Gayle Lynds

    And the beauty of it, too, so well addressed. Great questions, Francine, for a wonderful year ahead of mentoring. Lucky student!

  2. Karna Bodman

    What a terrific list — it really would get any aspiring author motivated to create a character with one special dream, locate the story in a desired location, and set the time-frame in her favorite period. Thanks for a truly thought-provoking post!

  3. Chris Goff

    That is an insightful way of finding a story. I'm impressed! Lucky girl, that mentee.

  4. Norma Huss

    I'm wondering what age your young writer is, since I'm in a group that mentors fifth grade students interested in writing.

  5. Francine

    She's a fifth grader, Norma.

  6. Sonja Stone

    Francine, these questions are fantastic. In yesterday's mail, I received a juror questionnaire that contained my most dreaded question: Who in your life (famous or otherwise) has significantly influenced you, and why? I don't know why that question has always rubbed me the wrong way. I wish the judge had asked ANY of your questions instead. A quality that intrigues me? Grace. One of my favorite things about President Obama was his quiet courtesy. The way his hand fell on the small of his wife's back as he escorted her through a room. The way he pressed his lips together and looked down before responding to angry shouts. The way he reminded us to come together, regardless of politics, religion, and beliefs, to strengthen our nation as a whole. I'm intrigued by grace because I don't think it's a quality I posses. I admire those able to take the high road. (PS I think mentoring a student at the request of a teacher shows exceptional grace.)