December 10, 2020

Write it! How to get started: Chapter 2 HOME


Writing tips and tricks: Chapter 2 On Going HOME

All of us who care about writing will probably at some point read Ernest Hemingway. So let’s start with some advice from “Papa.”

Ernest Hemingway

In Death in the Afternoon, Hemingway's book about bullfighting where he describes what he calls "the emotional and spiritual intensity and pure classic beauty that can be produced by a man, an animal, and a piece of scarlet serge draped on a stick," he says, 

“People in a novel, not skillfully constructed characters, must be projected from the writer’s assimilated experience, from his knowledge, from his head, from his heart and from all there is of him. . . . A great enough writer seems to be born with knowledge. But really he is not … .”


So what do we make of this when we begin on our own journey of writing? We often hear this advice, “Write what you know.” But we all know that great fantasy has little to do with that advice—or does it?

I argue that the greatest fantasy writes from what a writer does in fact know and has lived. 

Ah, we dream

Here’s what I mean: All great fantasy feels real because the greatest fantasy writers understand the importance of their own lived experience, what they learned while at home, wherever that home might be. The greatest, say Tolkien, make you at home in the worlds they create. 

First, start with your literal home in a guided imagery writing experiment. I'll outline it for you here, but be sure to do it as a free write.

What is a “free write”? 

Get yourself a pad of paper and write for 10 to 15 minutes without letting your pen off the paper and without worrying about grammar, spelling, punctuation. Just write! 

Remember that editing is always a secondary task.

We are looking for invention and invention needs fodder—stuff you’ll type up, put in your journal and use when you need it. You are preparing for the invention.

So here’s our first writing experiment. Let me know how yours comes out. 

Below, I tell you how, when I did this experiment, it ended up in one of my short stories that you may read in The Woman Who Never Cooked and that was first published in a well-known literary magazine: 

Chapter coming soon on why literary mags matter!

So get your pad and pen ready—and go home. If you are able, have someone quietly and slowly read this experiment to you while you do the free write. 

I’ve included a YouTube link below: Music that you may listen to while you do the free write, soothing sounds in the background.

If you don't have someone to read the experiment to you, read all the way through it, and then do the free write without taking you pen off the page

Let your unconscious mind take over—that's where the invention begins.

Click on the arrow and music will play:

Home Experiment:

Go in your head to the place where you grew up. What does the street look like? The door of the house, apartment, trailer, tent?

Go in. What do you see first, Go through the first room. What do you see, smell?

The second room if there is one. What do you see on the right, on the left?

Go in the kitchen. Is there a table? What does it look like? What’s on it?

Open the refrigerator and write about everything you see, smell. In the freezer? Or freezer compartment, what’s there? What do you see?

Is there a window in the kitchen? What do you see?

Are there stairs? What are they like, how do they sound when you walk on them?

Go in your parents’ room, your mother, father, stepparents’, guardian’s room. What do you see, want to touch, not want to touch? Open the closet. What do you see, smell?

Go in your bedroom. What is the bed like? Lie down on the bed. What’s on the ceiling? What’s under your bed? 

Write until your hand feels as if it won’t move anymore. Then write a last sentence. Type all this up and save it in your computer journal.

If you don’t have one, start one now.

You will be surprised by how much detail you’ve just created on paper, from your heart and mind and memory. 

The writing has begun.

Now for some inside scoop on my process: I once did a free write and remembered the time my sister and I got hair permanents: What a disaster for me more than for her. 

When we do these free writes we get material for invention. 

My memory ended up in the story "Sine Die" that won two prizes-- and almost got me in a lot of trouble: the Santa Fe Writer's Project Grand Prize and won The Prentice Hall Fiction Award (Ron Carlson, judge) and was published in The Hayden's Ferry Review. 

As to the trouble I got in: Some literary mags don't allow simultaneous submissions—very few still require this, and I will talk about this rule in discussions we have or maybe even in a chapter. 

So what happened is that I had sent the story to Chelsea and the editor then Richard Foerster (I now adore him!) got really angry. I fell on my sword in every way I could think of and he finally said, "Mary, lightening can strike twice. You need to be careful. Send me something else. I sent him "The Burglar"—see chapter one—and he sent me a contract. Wowza--that was a great day.

Here's a little excerpt that I hope will make you want to read the story in the collection The Woman Who Never Cooked

The two women were at the bar, thinking they were in Hong Kong, pretending. (Much of what they do is pretending—it is how they get on with one another.) Today they pretended that they were Asian, that their hair was long and straight, that they could smoke without harm, that they could drink and stay in control but still get high, that their skin was the beautiful mellow beige of Asian women, that they could lie in the sun without burning.

Don't forget to let me know how the free write worked for you.

Questions and comments welcome. A PayPal button (top right), if you like what you've read, any donation would help. Also: Do note that for some reason, if you are on Safari, to comment, you must go to 1. Safari preferences: See the drop-down menu in up left corner under "Safari". Then 2. go to Privacy and 3. uncheck "cross-tracking". You can now easily comment and can turn cross-tracking back on after you comment. Or, use Chrome to comment or ask me a question. Helps to sign into Google or Chrome first so that I know who you are! 

If you want one-on-one help, I offer, for a small  fee, via Zoom, a compressed SEVEN-session course with slides and more experiments than in these chapters I am giving away for free. 

email me at

I taught variations of this course at George Washington University, in the undergraduate and graduate MFA/Ph.D. creative writing program at the University of Missouri and at the Smithsonian's Campus-on-the-Mall. For more about me, Click Here 

Chapter 3 coming soon ...


Photo of Ernest Hemingway in the common domain
Quote from Death in the Afternoon by Ernest Hemingway, Scribner: New York 1932, 1960, p. 191
Photo of fantasy ship by zano on
Photo of pad, cup and pen, "office" from Pixabay 
YouTube video: Going Home - song


  1. Thank you, Mary, for this gift -- wise, fun and most helpful to those of us trying to put pen to paper.

  2. Thank you, Cosmo, both for reading and commenting so kindly,


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