The other night, thanks to the magic of the internet, I inadvertently stumbled on this article about incredible homes. My first thought was, “Squee!” because I would happily live in any of these places, but my second (and likely far more useful) thought was that any of these homes would be a fabulous start for a writing activity. We can tell a lot about a person from where they live and how they choose to live there. If you have any doubts about this, I encourage you to look to do an image search of Grey Gardens – it’s a fascinating example of how a home can reflect its inhabitants, and vice versa.
While my original idea was to create an activity for writers of prose and plays, as I reflected on this concept of people and their homes I realized this could be a fascinating exploration for those who journal or write memoirs, too. And so, two versions of Who Dwells Here were born. I myself have plans to dive into the journaling version of this activity as a way to explore the memory of my Nana, who spent nearly her entire lifetime in a home that her father built.
In this activity, I choose to use the word “dwelling” instead of house or home. This is my stubble reminder that there are many, many types places that people choose to inhabit. I’m not just referring to apartment complexes or trailers, either. People live in tents, igloos, house boats, trees…I’ll leave the rest of the possibilities to your imagination. So, without further ado…
WHO DWELLS HERE
Writing Process: Idea Generator, Character Development, Setting
Genre: Fiction, Playwriting, Memoir, Journaling
Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, A Doll’s House, Buried Child, these are just three of the many plays that spring to mind which have a strong connection between characters and their homes. Wuthering Heights, The Great Gatsby, even Harry Potter, that same connection can be made in fiction, too. This is because we define our dwellings and our dwellings define us. The two versions of this activity explore this connection and the many ideas and reflections it can generate.
VERSION #1 – For Prose or Playwriting
1. Select a dwelling to focus on for this exercise. If you are doing this as an individual, you can a) do an image search (when I searched “unexpected houses” this amazing article was in the top row), b) ask a friend(s) to randomly select a picture of a dwelling for you, or c) go out adventuring and snap a few photos of a dwelling that interests you. If you are facilitating this exercise for a class, ask the students to each bring in a picture of a dwelling (be sure to bring in some extras) and then a) make a gallery out of them so each student can choose the dwelling that interests them the most, or b) turn all the photos face down and have the students select at random.
2. Set a timer for anywhere from 1 – 3 minutes, and list everything that you notice about this dwelling and where it’s located. There is no detail too obvious.
3. Looking over the list you just created, write a one sentence description of the character you imagine lives in this dwelling. You can also name this character, if you like.
4. Now that you know who lives in this dwelling, answer the following questions about the character:
- How long has this character lived here?
- How did this character come to live here?
- What does this dwelling, and the possessions you imagine inside of it, say about this character’s personality or status? (Status can be social, economic, political, spiritual, etc.)
- Where are this character’s favorite/least favorite places in this dwelling, and why?
- What is the most joyful thing that has happened to this character in this dwelling?
- What is the most tragic thing that has happened to this character in this dwelling?
- What is a secret that this character keeps hidden in this dwelling?
5. Now that you’ve explored this character in connection to his or her home, it’s time to write. If you need a place to begin, choose one of the two writing prompts below:
Prose: <Character name> was in the <specific location>, when ______________.
Playwriting: (<Character name> enters the <specific location>, and sees _____________.)
VERSION #2 – For Memoir or Journaling
1. Select an individual you wish to explore. If you have a picture of where this individual lived, or better yet a picture of this individual taken inside or outside the dwelling, pull out that photograph now. If you like, write a 1 – 3 sentence reflection on that photograph as a warm up.
2, Set a timer for anywhere from 1 – 3 minutes, and list everything that you remember about this dwelling and where it’s located. There is no detail too obvious.
3. Look over your list. Remembering this individual inside his or her home, try to answer the following questions:
- How does this dwelling, and the possessions inside of it, reflect this individual’s personality, interests, and status?
- What are this person’s favorite/least favorite places in this dwelling, and why?
- To your knowledge, what is the most joyful thing that has happened to this individual in this dwelling?
- To your knowledge, what is the most tragic thing that has happened to this individual in this dwelling?
- To your knowledge, are there any secrets that this individual keeps hidden in this dwelling? Are there any secrets about this person that you wish you could find the answers to inside this dwelling?
4. Set the timer for 1 – 3 minutes and explore this dwelling through your other senses. What sounds do you remember in this dwelling? What smells? What textures? How did you feel when you were inside this dwelling?
5. Reset the timer one last time and list any other memories that you have about this individual that took place inside this dwelling. Write no more than a sentence for each memory, for now.
6. Finally, look at the lists you’ve generated and choose one item to explore further. Set a timer for 5 – 10 minutes and write. Do not edit or censor yourself!
I hope you enjoy this activity! Remember, whenever I post an activity, prompt, or guiding writing exercise in the Support For Writers section of my site, I will always write a blog post about the activity as well. That way, if you follow my blog you’ll always know when new exercises become available. Feel free to comment or ask questions, or to let me know this prompt went for you!