Writing Our Way Out is a collective of formally incarcerated writers led by David Coogan, PhD., Department of English, Virginia Commonwealth University. Their work explores the conditions, traps, and turning points to imprisonment in America, as well as the redemptive power of memoir.

WRITING YOUR WAY OUT PROMPTS

Adapted from Writing Our Way Out: Memoirs from Jail

The purpose of this project is to help you write your way into a new life: to honestly address where you’ve come from and where you’re going through the art of memoir. I believe your life is unique, even though you share a lot in common with other people. Your challenge here, should you choose to accept it, is to make sense of your experience, to pick and choose what readers will see, to teach readers how to see your struggle to change.

Because writing a memoir is hard work and not at all a confession or Statement of the Truth, you will have to work hard to make sure that your words convey meaning; that the people you write about, including yourself, become believable characters; that your scenes are vivid and engrossing; that your message comes through, primarily through the action and dialogue and description; that the plot keeps us moving, wanting to learn; that we are learning not only about your life but about Life; that you are reflecting enough to make sure that we readers get insights from your story at each and every turn.

The following four categories are the basic areas for you to address in your memoir. Together they’ll make up your “narrative arc”—that slow- curving line that takes us from somewhere to somewhere else. You can hit these points in any order while you’re drafting. Each category has a lot of questions, but feel free to run with the ones you like best and ignore the others.

The Past

  • Describe the people from your childhood who really made a difference in your life, who really affected you somehow.
  • What do you remember most about your neighborhood, your home, your room?
  • What did you do with your friends?
  • What about school—what was that like?
  • What were your dreams for yourself at this time?
  • What were your parents’ dreams for you?

The Problem

  • When did you start to get in trouble?
  • What sort of trouble was it?
  • Did you think of it as trouble then?
  • In your mind, how did you THINK about what you were doing?
  • Describe some of the people you knew during this time and how they fit into your world.
  • What was this world you had created for yourself? Define it. Describe it. What were the rules there? How did that world make you feel?
  • At some point, did you want to get out of this world but couldn’t?
  • What links this world to the childhood place you came from?

The Crisis

  • How did things get out of hand in this world? What happened first?
  • Why did the problem become unbearable at this time? What marks this time as significant?  
  • Did you do anything wrong? Or was it others who wronged you?
  • What happened to you emotionally as you tried to deal with this crisis?
  • Have you learned anything from the experience? Are you still learning?  

The Possibilities

  • What sort of things do you struggle with now?
  • If you are trying to change, how are you really changing? From what to what?
  • Describe something from your life that gives you hope that things could be different.
  • What’s your ambition for the future and how do you think you’ll get there?
  • What’s your vision of yourself in relation to other people?
  • What do you think you can offer others, and what would you like in return?

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