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Reflection description creative writing

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What is “Reflection” in Creative Nonfiction?

What is “Reflection” in Creative Nonfiction?

For the most part, novelists and memoirists use the same set of tools to tell their stories. They both create vivid scenes, develop three-dimensional characters, and evoke a strong sense of place. They rely on dialogue, effective pacing, and themes. But there is one tool that is used almost exclusively in creative nonfiction: reflection, sometimes called “the reflective voice” or “the voice of experience.”

Defining Reflection

Reflection is a type of “telling” that allows memoirists to get their present-day perspective onto the page. Most strong memoirs or personal essays contain two distinct voices: the voice of innocence and the voice of experience. The voice of innocence is the voice of the character who experiences the events. In Angela’s Ashes, for instance, the voice of innocence is the child in Ireland whose brothers die, whose mother becomes distant, and whose alcoholic father can’t hold a job. The voice of experience, on the other hand, is the older, wiser reflective voice that looks back on events years later. In Angela’s Ashes, this is the adult who tells readers what these experiences mean and how they impact the character’s life in the long term. In other words, the reflective voice knows the character’s future. It appears in the text to impart wisdom and explain why the story’s events matter.

The Purpose of Reflection

The aim of reflection is to make sense of the story, but it is not used to tell the story. (The voice of innocence does that.) Memoirists use the reflective voice to make meaning—to help readers discover the underlying message of a particular scene or moment from the character’s life. The color-coded passage below, from Lucy Grealy’s Autobiography of a Face, illustrates how the voice of innocence (green) and the voice of experience (purple) work together to tell the story in a work of creative nonfiction:

[My mother] borrowed a pair of scissors from the nurse’s desk, and while I sat in a chair she snipped off what remained of my hair, my white, white scalp shining through. We discovered for the first time that I had a large birthmark above my left ear.

The next morning my mother came in with a hat, a small white sailor’s hat, which I put on and almost never took off for the next two and a half years, even during the periods when my hair was growing back in. Sometimes it grew several inches and was perfectly presentable as hair, but I knew it was only going to fall out again, and I refused to be seen in public without my hat. My hat. It became part of me, an inseparable element of who I thought I was.

My hat was my barrier between me, and what I was vaguely becoming aware of as ugly about me, and the world. It hid me, hid my secret, though badly, and when [other children] made fun of me or stared at me, I assumed it was only because they could guess what was beneath my hat. It didn’t occur to me that the whole picture, even with the hat, was ugly; as long as I had it on, I felt safe. Once, on television, I saw someone lose his hat in the wind and I immediately panicked for him, for his sudden exposure. It was a visceral reaction.

Here, the voice of innocence communicates the child’s experience—it creates a brief scene that shows the character receiving a haircut and beginning to wear a hat that later becomes central to her identity. Then, the reflective voice takes over to say things the child can’t say because she doesn’t know them yet. The child doesn’t realize her hat acts as a mask or that she is “ugly” even while wearing it. These are the adult’s revelations—things she has learned in the years since she wore a hat to hide from the world.

How to Reflect

Beginning memoirists often fall into the trap of only using the reflective voice or only using the voice of innocence, rather than combining the two. This typically happens because they don’t feel comfortable moving between these distinct voices. However, with a little practice and the use of several effective techniques, it becomes second nature. Below are strategies adapted from memoirist Joyce Dyer’s handout “Techniques to Start Reflection in Creative Nonfiction.” These strategies can be applied in nearly all works of creative nonfiction.

  • Ask a question. (Why is to so hard to…?)
  • Reject possible explanations. (I don’t believe… It seems unlikely…)
  • Imagine or speculate. (I wonder what would have happened if… I like to imagine… I hope my mother knew… Perhaps things would have been different if…)
  • Tell an alternative version of events and then reveal the truth. (It didn’t actually happen like that… Unfortunately, that’s a lie…)
  • Use timestamps to show distance between the event being described and the present day. (Now, I can see… Today, I understand… Looking back… I didn’t realize it then, but…)
  • Use generalizations to explain a key takeaway from a scene. (We don’t often think of justice as…)

The color-coded example below, an excerpt from Richard Hoffman’s memoir Half the House, illustrates the author’s smooth transition from the voice of innocence (green) to the voice of experience (purple) using the “timestamp” technique (underlined).

By the end of football season, I couldn’t bear the shame anymore. I tried to explain to Coach Tom that as a Catholic I would have to tell the priest about [the sexual abuse] in confession. I tried to reassure him that he didn’t have to worry, that the priest was bound by “the seal of the confessional.” Priests had been tortured to death without revealing what was told to them in confession.

“Bullshit,” he said. “He’d go right to your mother and father. Think about that, you little moron. I bet that would go over big, huh?”

After that he avoided me, and only spoke to me when he had to. It was over. I remember a boy named Chris was always with him after that.

So when my mother asked about the purple wound on my arm, I told her a dog had bitten me on my afternoon paper route. She wanted to know whose dog it was. Did it have a collar on? There was no telling what kind of germs a stray might be carrying. As I remember this now, I’m not convinced that she believed me, and thinking of the awful silence that came between us, I sometimes feel as desolate as I did back then, when the winter sky slipped away to dark blue and I hurried to get The Evening Chronicle on a mile and a half of doorsteps before it grew too dark to see.

The word “now” is a signal to the reader, a flashing neon sign showing that the narrative has jumped forward in time from a childhood memory to the adult narrator’s reflection on that memory. This shift from the voice of innocence to the voice of experience doesn’t call attention to itself, but it does allow the memoirist to include knowledge and feelings the child wouldn’t have been able to articulate. It also helps readers to understand the long-term impact of the lie and the feelings it created—again, things the child couldn’t have known in the moment.

Conclusion

Reflection is a key element of most memoirs and personal essays. Therefore, it’s an essential skill for writers of creative nonfiction to develop. When writers move seamlessly between the voice of innocence and the voice of experience, they add depth to their work and help readers connect to the characters’ experiences on a deeper level.

Image credit: “Professional Writer” by Joseph Caldwell is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 4.0

Reflection description creative writing

Ricardo Cordero

Professor Katz

Creative Writing

Reflection

My reflection to the Creative Writing Class

As a whole, I am very bittersweet about the class. I can say I did learn a lot, and I got to excersise my creativity in another way, so I am glad to learn that I did it correctly. There are some things, that I would have rather not done, simply because they didn’t capture my interest as much as me being able to write my own stories did.

In fact I enjoyed that most. When we had to write our own stories it was interesting to me. Because the entire creative writing process isn’t as easy as it sounds. You can’t just sit down and boom, write a story. It isn’t as easy to express yourself in writing as one might think it is. I had to learn the hard way that ideas in your head don’t sound as good on paper as they do in your head. Hence the inspiration for Greatest Story Ever which if you haven’t guessed by now is very loosely based on me, in class, going through my experience with the creative writing process.

I just added some things for excitement. And if its one thing I really learned from this, is that a writer must keep his or her readers entertained.

Reflection description creative writing

I think overall that creative writing has been the best class that I have taken at Bear Creek. It has taught me not only about my self as a writer, but about myself as a person. It has been amazing to watch my writing style improve in all of the areas that we worked on. Before taking this class I never saw myself as one for writing poetry, but now I think that poetry has become one of my favorite writing styles. Through this class I have become a lot better at writing poetry and at incorporating a theme into my poems. I learned that not all poems have to rhyme, and that some of the best poems do not rhyme at all. Through this class I have also learned to develop my short fiction more. Before this class I had written some short fiction just on my own, but it was no where the level of complexity that I can write short fiction with now. In addition to learning how to develop my short fiction more I learned how to write screenplay. I have wanted to learn how to write screenplay for quite sometime now, and now I have the basic guidelines I need to continue writing it outside of this class. I had written satire before for other english classes, but writing satire for this class was a lot more fun because there were less guidelines and it was more up to personal preference. That was another one of my favorite things about this class was that it was so open ended, and left up to personal preference. There were no real guidelines to subject matter which allowed my work to be much better, specifically my short fiction.

In terms of growth, my scores have remained fairly constant throughout, but my writing, which was already good, has improved greatly. My writing style has noticeably improved after taking this class. In the past I struggled with gathering all of my ideas together to form one common theme, but now I have really improved in terms of theme. My poetry especially has all been formed around a common theme. I also noticed that for some reason all of my themes and writing pieces seem to be super sad or super dark, and I guess thats just because that I have found that it is much easier to write about dark topics than it is to write about happy ones. I have also found that I am gifted with dialogue and that I also really enjoy writing it.

Reflection for The Piano

Writing a sestina was very challenging because of the restrictions, but the restrictions are also what made the poem really come together. In the past I have struggled greatly with writers block, so the restrictions allowed me to come up with something easier and that had a deeper theme and meaning. My strategy for writing my sestina was to choose words that all revolved around the same theme and that could pretty much be paired with any other words and still make sense. I chose the theme of the transition from dark to light, and I also wanted to tell a story with my poem. Overall, the words seem to work well together, and successfully work together to tell a story and to represent my theme of a transition from dark to light.

Reflection for I’m From. Poem

I loved writing my I’m From. poem because it allowed me to reflect on my childhood, and all the memories and events that have made me who I am. Reflecting on those moments makes me truly appreciate the little things in life, so I tried to put that feeling into my poem which for the most part worked out pretty good I think. My favorite lines are the last lines where I showcase how the little moments have become the big moments because it really ties together the greater meaning of the entire poem.

Reflection for Light Bulb Poem

This poem was fun because it is not in traditional format and plays around with whitespace. I enjoyed playing around with many different themes for this poem, but decided on the theme of light and dark because it was easiest to make a lightbulb with words than a tree or piano. In addition to making the poem in a shape of light bulb, I also changed the font, color, and size of different words to emphasize the importance of different words in regards to the theme. This poem also does not have a title because the title takes away from the shape of the poem.

Reflection for Music Flew From Pages

At first I really struggled with the villanelle, but after I found words that I could use to rhyme it became easier. Instead of building my poem around a theme, I chose words that I could build a theme around that were all generic words that rhymed and could be used in many different things. I enjoyed how the theme of music contrasting with nature and humanity developed throughout when I was writing it. I also like how the words tree and free when in two entirely different directions in their corresponding stanzas. The tree stanzas are more light-hearted and related to nature, while the free stanzas are more dark.

Short Story Reflection

Deciding to write this piece was very risky because it deals with a very sensitive subject matter, however everyday it seems like we are seeing something in the news about shootings. I wanted this piece to have a very realistic theme that would mean to something to someone. I chose to write this piece from the perspectives of two different characters–the shooter and the shooter’s councillor. In writing this piece from the shooter’s point of view it provides insight into the problem of bullying that is facing so many kids. Often times people, both adults and kids, don’t recognize the seriousness of bullying, and how it has affected so many people. By including the perspective of the councillor it further shows the impact of such events, and how often times the shooter is the victim as well. The media often portrays the shooter as the villain because that is what people want to hear, but the reality is that often times there are multiple villains, the shooter, the bullies, and the people who did nothing about the situation. Overall, I think this piece, although horrifying, conveys the intended message.

I was very excited to learn to write screenplays, but very quickly learned that it was harder than I thought it would be. I think one of the most challenging aspects of writing screenplay is that it is designed to be visual, so sometimes it may look really cool in the writers head, but if it is not filmed then it does not appear as cool to the reader. I originally wrote this screenplay to submit it to the bullying video competition of BCTN but whether or not I submit it is dependent on whether or not I have the time or the resources to film it.

I have written satire several times before, and I think that it is one of the more difficult kinds of writing. It is difficult to find a balance between what is funny and what is crossing the line. My satire is criticizing the high obesity rates in America, and people’s need to combat their obesity with some variety of expensive or involved diet instead of just trying to eat relatively healthy and working out. I got the idea for this satire from an inside joke that I made with my mom over the summer. We were sitting on the back porch eating lunch, and we sort of just came up with the idea of tossing food over our shoulders–for our dog–and then pretending to eat it.