Writing Prompt Changed Everything


When a writing prompt changed everything.

Last night, at my writing club, we used this prompt: Imagine looking at childhood pictures of your antagonist. What details stand out that make you empathize with him or her? 

1. I thought of this picture

Family, Jill Kandel, writing between cultures, Izaak Kandel, memoir, The Netherlands, WWII, old family photos

I’m knee deep writing my next book, set in the Netherlands. A story about my relationship with my father-in-law. So far, I’ve written about a lot of our struggles. We had a tumultuous relationship full of cultural mishaps, personality differences and a host of misunderstandings.

So I’m at writing club and I’m asked to empathize with him? That’s new. Okay. Let’s try. 

I think about the photo and begin to see Izaak not as an older man, my father-in-law, but as a young boy, as the baby of the family. It is mid-1930 and war is coming to the Netherlands. The dark rings under his mother’s eyes are more than shadows; they hint at long months of sleeplessness and worry.

A photo of Izaak’s oldest brother, Wes, sits on the table next to his mother. Wes enlisted in the navy on his 17th birthday, when Izaak was only five years old. In 1939, he will sign up for another tour and sail to the East Indies. A little brother, hero worship, story telling. A sailor who will not come home again, who will not survive the war.

Wes, The Netherlands, Sailor, WWII, Writing Between Cultures, Memoir, Writing Prompts

In the family photo, Izaak doesn’t give much away. His face is rather expressionless, but he looks kind. He looks like he wants to please. His father sits stern and balding, stolid in his three piece suit and tie. The family is stiff, unsmiling, formal. It doesn’t seem there is much cheer to be found. What a joyless place he has been born into. What a difficult era. No one would choose this time to be a mother. No one would choose this time to be a boy.

As this writing prompt pulls me back into the 1930s, it changes everything: I write myself into empathy. Izaak is no longer just my antagonist. He is also a victim, a war refugee, a child. He is the baby of his family. He is a brother. He is a son. Seeing him like this will change my story.

2. I thought about my recent trip to the Netherlands

Writing prompt Changed Everything, Jill Kandel, Nijmegen, forest, the Netherlands, WWII, family, How We Love

On the third day in the Netherlands, my sister-in-law and I took at trip to Rijk van Nijmegen, Duivelsberg, a “mountainous” nature reserve. (Interestingly, Duivelsberg is the only region in the Netherlands that was annexed from Germany after WWII) We hiked for five hours. Over the course of the hike we passed through amazing forests and out into pastures filled with milk cows. We went over hills, up and down steps, and past blooming gardens, herds of sheep, and back into the woods.

Nijmegen, bos walk, Jill Kandel, writing between cultures, memoir, the Netherlands, WWII

And we talked.

We talked about what it was like for her to grow up, the only daughter, in the Kandel family. We talked about her childhood memories, how her folks interacted, stories about her brothers and schooling, and jobs. And I kept thinking, “Wow! You remind me of my husband!”

Writing Prompt Changed Everything, trees, jill kandel, writing between culutres, the netherlands

This is what surprised me. When I said, “I do” (33 years ago) I didn’t just marry a man. I married a family.

My husband’s childhood and sister and brother and father and mother, etched themselves into his thoughts, his responses, his perceptions of the world.

By coming to the Netherlands to learn more about my father-in-law, I am really learning more about my husband and myself.

3. I thought about a book I’m reading, How We Love by Milan and Kay Yerkovich


Yerkovich writes, “Your childhood relational experiences are wired into your behaviors and beliefs, creating imprints called “love styles.” This concept comes from attachment theory, which states that our childhood roles form the roots of who we are, and continue informing the way we love and treat others far into adulthood.”

Wow! That sounds an awful lot like what I’ve been thinking about. How We Love says people fall into one of six main categories: Avoider, Pleaser, Vacillator, Controller, Victim, Secure. Which one am I? Which one is my husband? And how do our two different points of view interact with each other?

I am on a journey, and if I want to understand it, I need to see not just the path, but the ancient trees that shadow it.

Tree, Writing Prompt Changes Everything, Nijmegen, the Netherlands, Duivelsberg, Jill Kandel

I need to understand that the light that falls by my feet is dappled by the history above it.

We all come from dappled histories.


But, I just want to say this: I’m grateful.

  • Grateful for my husband and the family I married into
  • Grateful for my writing club
  • Grateful for those who put up with having a writer for a friend / a writer in the family


Jill Kandel
  • Deb Gallaway
    Posted at 16:05h, 29 September Reply

    I so love this set of reflections, Jill. Thank you for this gift of insight into what you’ve been learning. One time, years ago, my husband–a painter–and I were standing in line to get food at a weekend conference: He said to me as we stood here: “Imagine trying to draw the face of each personstanding here in line.” That experience of trying to imagine drawing a stranger’s face took me by surprise. I was no longer busy trying to prejudge the persons around me, to fix them into stereotypes that I could “manage.” Suddenly I realized that each person there was a mystery to me–so complex I could never fully understand him or her. We have so much to learn,

    • Jill Kandel
      Posted at 15:10h, 30 September Reply

      What a lovely story, Deb! Thank you for telling it to me. Yes, absolutely. People are such a mystery. There’s always more than one thing going on in a life.

  • Andrea
    Posted at 05:02h, 02 October Reply

    Nice thoughts lady’s! What i ask my self more and more: Do i even understand myself???
    And Jill: i am greatfull for having you in our odd and complcating family: more and more becoming friend and helping me to analyze and understand my family…..myself!!

    • Jill Kandel
      Posted at 06:58h, 04 October Reply

      Thank you, Andrea. I love becoming your friend, too. I think our ‘odd complicated family’ has helped me in so many ways to understand myself, too. It’s a great journey I didn’t expect when I got married. I’m glad we are on it together.

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