Day Three: Mother Dough

(estimated time: 45 minutes)

My friend Jim likes to bake bread. In his fridge, he keeps a sourdough starter. Also known as “mother dough,” a starter is a goopy mixture of flour, water, and yeast. When Jim wants to make a loaf, he scoops out a tablespoon of mother dough, mixes it with some flour and water, and … well, I don’t know what he does next, but that’s not the point of this story. This story is about the mother dough, which he “feeds” with a little flour and water before sticking it back in the fridge so it will be ready for the next loaf. The point is that once you have a starter, it can last forever. This one mother can have a million offspring.

I could talk about bread all day long, but I should probably connect this story to writing. Wouldn’t it be cool if there was a starter for ideas? Wouldn’t it kick ass if you had a mother dough for stories?

Glad tidings, writers. Today, I’m going to show you a starter that you already carry within you, the mother of mother doughs: Your memory. To tap into your memory, you’ll write a series of lines that all start with the phrase, “I Remember.” Whatever you remember, you write down. That’s it!

This simple but powerful exercise is based on a book of the same name by Joe Brainard, an artist and writer, who collected his “I Remember”s in several editions, which are available in book form. The real beauty of this exercise is that you can go back to it again and again, and it will always yield something surprising.


Pick out a book. Find one that:

·      You’ve already read.

·      Is similar in some way to the stuff you want to write. Maybe it’s in the same genre, or has the kind of voice you’re going for, or maybe it has some kind of spiritual kinship with your work that you can’t quite put your finger on.

Set a countdown timer for 10-15 minutes and read a few pages. Because you’ve read it before, you already know how things turn out, so you won’t be reading for plot. This time, with a little luck, you might notice something about the writer’s techniques, which could help you with your own writing. (As I always tell my students: If you steal another writer’s words, that’s called plagiarism. If you steal another writer’s techniques, that’s called learning.)

Even if you don’t consciously notice anything about technique, though, this is still a good exercise to prepare you for writing. Think of it like taking a deep breath before singing out.


During the I remember exercise, treat your mind like a magic eight ball: whatever floats up gets written on the page—no matter how trivial or embarrassing it might seem. You’re the only one who’s going to see this exercise.

One I remember does not have to be related to the next one. It’s okay to jump around to different points and periods in your life.

One I remember can be related to the next one, though. Sometimes you dig into a memory and start remembering all kinds of stuff—but don’t abandon the I remember frame and start writing a story about that incident. There will be time for that on a different day.


Timebox this exercise: Write for ten minutes, take a short break, then do another ten minutes.

Keep the pen moving the whole time until the timer stops. As long as your pen is moving, your mind is engaged and will send something else your way. Think of it like the icemaker in your fridge. You know how sometimes you jam your glass against the lever and the freezer groans and grinds away, but for a few seconds nothing clunks into your glass? Do you walk away, saying, No ice for me, I guess? No, you keep your glass jammed against the lever and you wait, because you can feel that ice coming.

Want a model before you start? Here’s an excerpt of some I Remembers from Joe Brainerd:

I remember the only time I ever saw my mother cry. I was eating apricot pie.

I remember how much I used to stutter.

I remember the first time I saw television.  Lucille Ball was taking ballet lessons.

I remember Aunt Cleora who lived in Hollywood. Every year for Christmas she sent my brother and me a joint present of one book.

I remember a very poor boy who had to wear his sister’s blouses to school.

I remember shower curtains with angel fish on them.

I remember very old people when I was very young. Their houses smelled funny.

I remember daydreams of being a singer all alone on a big stage with no scenery, just one spotlight on me, singing my heart out, and moving my audience to total tears of love and affection.


What surprised you about this exercise?

What worked well today? What didn’t work so well?

Re: the time and place you’ve been writing—how is that working for you? Would you like to try anything different in regard to time and place?

What did you learn about yourself as a writer today?

Put an X in the box for Day 3 and jot down how much time you spent on this writing session.